The Boxtrolls (2014)
Editor’s Notes: The Boxtrolls is currently out in wide theatrical release.
Laika Entertainment’s latest effort, The Boxtrolls follows in the footsteps of its other feature length films such as Corpse Bride, Coraline, and ParaNorman in that it takes a topic that is fairly dark and unsettling and makes it into wonderful entertainment for kids. It’s also got deeper meanings for the parents in the audience if they’re willing to look for them.
The story is that of Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright, who plays Bran Stark on Game of Thrones), a boy who was taken by the boxtrolls as a baby and raised amongst them. Boxtrolls are ugly but sweet creatures that are clothed in boxes and can shrink inside of and hide in them. Their main goal seems to be getting spare parts to build things for their cave, which is under a town that is built up and around a mountain (it actually looks quite a lot like Minas Tirith from The Lord of the Rings, just without the seven gates and heavy fortifications and going all the way up the mountain instead of just part of it) with the upper class living at the top (obviously) and the lower classes filtering down. The Boxtrolls are benign creatures who are relatively simple and love making mechanical things.
The Boxtrolls follows in the footsteps of its other feature length films such as Corpse Bride, Coraline, and ParaNorman in that it takes a topic that is fairly dark and unsettling and makes it into wonderful entertainment for kids …
Though in the town, the legend of the Boxtrolls is quite different. As told by Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley, sounding so much like Michael Gambon I spent part of the film trying to figure out who Kingsley played, figuring it was Gambon as Snatcher), the Boxtrolls are evil creatures bent on stealing children and eat them, adding to their mountain of bones and river of blood. It’s though this depiction of the Boxtrolls that Snatcher sets himself up as the town’s Boxtroll hunter in an effort to break into the upper crust, get himself a white hat (the symbol of the rich and powerful in the town) and his seat at the tasting table where the White Hats sample cheeses from all over (and is indeed the overarching obsession of these town leaders, so much so that instead of taking money donated for the construction of a new children’s hospital, they blow the money on the world’s largest cheese wheel).
Snatcher has help in the form of three henchmen: Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan) who is the most committed and closest in line with Snatcher, Mr. Trout (Nick Frost) and Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade, Moss from British TV’s brilliant The IT Crowd) who are kind of Vladimir and Estragon like characters who constantly ponder whether they are the good guys or not and are really the highlights of the film.
Eventually Eggs meets Winnie (Elle Fanning), daughter of the lead White Hat, and together they stumble upon a sinister plot by Snatcher and eventually expose the true nature of the Boxtrolls to the town.
All of that at the end is a little perfunctory and expected in a film like this. It’s the places it goes before that that are most surprising and rewarding. Through the character of Snatcher, writers Irena Brignull and Adam Pava (working from the novel Here be Monsters! by Alan Snow) shows the effects of low and poor information on a large group of people. Snatcher twists the facts so he can move up the social ladder (he made a deal that if he rid the town of all the Boxtrolls, he would earn his white hat) and in so doing he sows the seeds of bigotry and fear that germinates in the town. They are so convinced of his story that they take his orders, including an imposed curfew, just so they can be kept safe by him.
The character of Archibald Snatcher is one of the darkest I’ve seen in a kid’s movie since perhaps Scar in The Lion King with his dictatorial fantasies and if the filmmakers were not as careful as they were, he would be the stuff of nightmares.
He not only defames the Boxtrolls and keeps their true nature a secret from the public, but he uses the ones he catches as slave labor. In many ways, Snatcher is the embodiment of the old slave-traders who made people believe that Africans were nothing more than cattle to be bought and sold so they could make their fortunes, legitimizing their business on lies. The character of Archibald Snatcher is one of the darkest I’ve seen in a kid’s movie since perhaps Scar in The Lion King with his dictatorial fantasies and if the filmmakers were not as careful as they were, he would be the stuff of nightmares. As it is, he’s terrifying but still able to be made fun of because of one scene where he makes his henchmen sit down and don white (paper) hats and have a cheese tasting, ignoring the fact that he is allergic to cheese (and presumably all dairy) and needs leeches to relieve the swelling. The scene is so funny that his ambitions are made to look ridiculous and therefore as scary as he is, there is something to laugh at.
These elements of the story are serviced by exemplary stop-motion animation. The work here is top notch and is yet another upswing in the resurgence of stop-motion animation. In the last 10 years, there have been 15-20 stop-motion films, while the preceding years there were barely any. As the medium becomes more and more popular among both filmmakers and audiences alike, the bar for quality is constantly raised and Laika Studios always seems to exceed the expectations, just like their counterparts at Ardman (the creators of Wallace and Gromit). There is a bit at the end with Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles that wittily expounds on the animation style and how it relates to them, in a kind of philosophical discussion that befits their Waiting for Godot-like characters. This style of animation has always fascinated me simply because of the work involved in it.
The Boxtrolls may not be on the level of other recent stop-motion films like Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the WareRabbit or Coraline but it does offer quite a lot of entertainment while making potent comments on staying informed and even the impact of neglectful parents. It’s a wonderful, quirky little film with lovable characters and a terrifying villain. It may be a touch strong for really young kids but older ones will really enjoy it.
The Boxtrolls may not be on the level of other recent stop-motion films like Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the WareRabbit or Coraline but it does offer quite a lot of entertainment while making potent comments on staying informed and even the impact of neglectful parents. It’s a wonderful, quirky little film with lovable characters and a terrifying villain.