The animation world is still suffering from its “Frozen” hangover, but this weekend “The Boxtrolls” is here to help. From the studio that created “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” this story of an orphan raised by trash-collecting trolls looks funny and sweet, a quirky spin on a familiar tale of outsiders and growing up. With its clunky, earthy look, the movie is the latest edition of stop-motion animation, the awkward stepsister of the hand-drawn or computer animation favored by Disney/Pixar. Stop motion animators have embraced their secondary role, content to explore off the beaten path and tell stories in unconventional ways. The results, like these three movies that paved the way for “The Boxtrolls,” are often just as brilliant, if not more so, as Disney’s princesses and Pixar’s adventures.
“Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005)
Cast: Peter Sallis, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Peter Kay
Available on YouTube, to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix
Wallace and Gromit might be the best pair in the history of animation. Mickey had Goofy, Bugs had Daffy, but there’s no team quite like Wallace and Gromit. An eccentric inventor and his dog, the two bring delight and good cheer wherever they go, getting into silly scrapes, solving problems with delightful machines, and eating far too much cheese. First introduced in four short films starting in 1989, “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” is their only feature-length film to date.
From the moment Wallace and Gromit slide down a chute side by side, we know we’re in for a grand adventure. The town’s fast-approaching Giant Vegetable Competition is under siege from rabbits, and there’s no one better to save the day than the pair’s “Anti-Pesto” service. The problem is: they don’t believe in killing the big-eared pests, but are running out of space to keep them, so Wallace decides to solve the problem with “a bit of harmless brain alteration.” This goes wrong, of course, and the rest of the movie follows their whirlwind attempts to fix it, cheese tents, golden bullets, and giant rabbit marionettes galore.
“A Town Called Panic” (2009)
Cast: Jeanne Balibar, Nicolas Buysse, Stéphane Aubier, Véronique Dumont, Bruce Ellison, Vincent Patar
Streaming for free on Hulu (without commercials with Hulu Plus), to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix
Based on the Belgian children’s TV show of the same name, “A Town Called Panic” was the first stop-motion animated film ever to screen at the Cannes Film Festival – but don’t mistake that for a sign of pretentiousness or even any particular significance. “A Town Called Panic” is pure, simple, inspired silliness. Using plastic toys rather than the clay and puppet figurines more familiar to this style of animation, directors Aubier and Patar recreate the imagination and the lunacy of a five-year-old making up stories on their bedroom floor, rushing from an underwater kingdom, to the center of the earth, to a parallel universe, to the lair of a penguin-obsessed mad scientist. The central trio of Horse, Cowboy and Indian are endearing buffoons – Horse’s flirtation with a local piano teacher is particularly delightful. Not in the least bit logical, but frequently amusing and occasionally inspired.
“Mary and Max” (2009)
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette, Eric Bana, Barry Humphries, Bethany Whitmore
Available streaming on Netflix, for rent or purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes
If ever there was a film to break the perception of animation as a slight, exclusively family-friendly medium, “Mary and Max” might be it. Adam Elliot won an Oscar for his stop-motion short “Harvey Krumpet,” about a man with Tourette syndrome; his feature-length follow-up pushes further into the black humor and drama of mental illness, tackling issues of anxiety, depression, autism, agoraphobia, alcoholism and obesity. Inspired by the Australian Elliot’s own real-life 20-year correspondence with a pen-pal in America, “Mary and Max” follows a young Australian girl (Whitmore, then Collette) who strikes up an unlikely long-distance friendship with a middle-aged Jewish New Yorker (Hoffman). While ultimately optimistic about the value of companionship, forgiveness and patience, “Mary and Max” is completely unafraid of sending its character to dark, desperate places, made all the more jarring by Elliot’s whimsical, if monochromatic, animation. Hoffman and Collette put in sterling voice performances.