I’m a big fan of Laika. No, not the space-faring dog so much as the animation company responsible for Coraline, ParaNorman and, most recently, Kubo and the Two Strings, one of my favourite films of 2016. Their loving dedication to the art of stop-motion animation tends to combine with their ability as storytellers and their oddball imagination to strange and wonderful effects, making their films distinctly different from Pixar’s beautiful but more sentimental fare, and elevating them far beyond other contenders with their well-rehearsed snark and pop culture references. I’d avoided The Boxtrolls to date, mainly because I’d heard that it was distinctly lesser Laika – and now, having caught it on TV, I would probably agree that it’s nowhere near the top of my list of Laika favourites, but it is still a great example of the company’s craftsmanship. The film, loosely based on Alan Snow’s 2006 children’s book Here Be Monsters!, combines the early Victoriana of Charles Dickens’ novels with the dark and sometimes gleefully gruesome humour of Roald Dahl – and hinting at even darker and more surreal entertainments such as the films of Monty Python.
However, I want to write less about the film as a whole than about one scene that, even if I don’t like the film quite as much as Kubo, Coraline or ParaNorman, is absolutely sublime – it pays homage to the awesome stop-motion craft of Laika’s animators while at the same time showing how metafictional self-awareness in no way must lessen how real characters in fiction can feel to an audience. Throughout The Boxtrolls, some of the most hilarious scenes belong to the villain’s henchmen, the red-hatted Mr. Trout, Mr. Pickles and Mr. Gristle. While the latter, Mr. Gristle, is a pint-sized psychopath with a taste for violence, his two companions (voiced beautifully by Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade) aren’t quite as devoid of scruples, their repeated insistence that they’re the good guys, aren’t they, only highlighting their growing doubts. (There’s more than a hint of this Mitchell and Webb sketch in their conversations.)
The film gives (practically) all of its characters a chance at redemption, and Mr. Pickles and Mr. Trout grasp it just before the end – which sets the stage for a wonderful mid-credits scene where the two wistful, philosophical ex-henchmen, now sweeping the streets of Cheesebridge, ruminate about their existence, metaphysics and the question of free will:
The scene shows the painstaking artifice of the animation, yet we never lose sight of the two characters: disbelief remains firmly suspended even while the creators at Laika make the trick visible.
Audiences sometimes react badly to meta elements, at least outside comedies that never want their characters to be taken seriously; they don’t want to be reminded of the artifice of the fiction that they’re watching, afraid that this will break the spell. Master storytellers, like the artists at Laika, can make you fall in love with the puppet even while you’re looking at the strings. Filling something seemingly lifeless – an inanimate figure, a drawing, a bunch of pixels, or even words strung together – with life isn’t a con that will fall apart the moment we look at it more closely: it’s magic. We should be allowed to pay respect to the magicians more often.