Friday, September 26, 2014

Review: The Boxtrolls

by Patrick Bromley
"I'm living in a box, I'm living in a cardboard box." -- "Living in a Box" by Living in a Box

With their latest effort The Boxtrolls, the American animation studio Laika is now three for three. Like their two previous films, 2009's Coraline and 2012's ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls is about a lot of things, among them mob mentality fear, concepts of good and evil and what it's like to feel alienated for being different. Unlike its two previous films, it has a mostly generic and uninvolving adolescent lead at its center and too loose a grasp on its narrative. It still manages to be a beautiful, immersive and surprisingly dark tale that's just right for getting in the mood days before October begins.

Little Eggs (Isaac Hempsted Wright, aka Bran Stark on Game of Thrones) is a human boy living among the Boxtrolls, who are underground monsters obsessed with building things and who are afraid of just about everything -- hence the boxes they wear in which they can hide like turtles retreating to their shells (their names -- Fish, Shoes, etc. -- come from whatever picture is on their box). The story above ground goes that Eggs was a human baby stolen by the Boxtrolls to be eaten, which was all the justification needed by Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) to enlist the services of an evil exterminator, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), so that he might round up and kill every last Boxtroll. For his efforts, Snatcher's greatest dream will be realized: he will be granted membership into the prestigious White Hats, a group of aristocrats (led by Portley-Rind) whose main pastime is discussing and eating various kinds of cheese. Now it's up to Eggs and his one human friend Winnie (daughter of Portley-Rind, voiced by Elle Fanning) to protect the Boxtrolls before they're wiped out for good.
Even with its wonderfully classical British period atmosphere (I was thinking of all the Hammer films I wanted to watch as soon as it ended), The Boxtrolls is Laika's least "fantastic" film. It is neither the dark fantasy of Coraline nor the supernatural morality play that was ParaNorman. Yes, it takes place in a world in which monsters are an accepted reality, but the focus is on the humans. The Boxtrolls themselves are fun and cute to look at and certainly get some amusing bits of business, but mainly exist as a metaphor for our own fears of the unknown. The townspeople hate the Boxtrolls because they are different and, more importantly, because they have someone telling them they should be afraid of them. Sound at all familiar? It's not difficult to read the film as an allegory for the last decade of American fear mongering.

More interesting are Snatcher's henchmen, Mr. Trout (Nick Frost) and Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade), whose ongoing conversation about whether they are heroes or villains becomes something of an existential gag. Yet there's a lot of truth to their crisis, which only serves to underscore one of the movie's major themes -- are your actions justified if you believe them to be good, even if you're working from wrong information? Is The Boxtrolls Laika's critique of the Iraq War? Or U.S. foreign policy in general?

Probably not, but the fact that the question can even be raised is a tribute to the screenplay (written by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, based upon Alan Snow's 2005 children's book Here Be Monsters!), which isn't content to be just more mindless kids' entertainment; Laika, like Pixar before them, make movies that work just as well for kids as they do adults, and not just by making vapid pop culture references or dirty innuendo. Frost and Ayoade's characterizations of Trout and Pickles are great, too; they're my favorite characters in the movie and at the center of the single best gag -- be sure to stay through the end credits as their existential plight continues.
Also doing wonderful voice work are Jared Harris as the pompous, scattered Lord Portley-Rind (what this movie has to say about the aristocracy and who gets to wear what color hat is further evidence of some scathing sociopolitical commentary, disguised as a kids' movie about monsters in boxes) and Ben Kingsley as the hateful Snatcher. There's something equally pathetic and sinister about Snatcher, who keeps a secret that's hilariously bizarre and nurses one terrible allergy. The opportunity to act as just a disembodied voice has clearly freed Kingsley up to indulge some of his hammier instincts, but it works. Between this, Iron Man 3 and Sexy Beast, it's clear that Kingsley should play villains more often. Let us never mention BloodRayne again.
But where the movie really shines -- where all of Laika's movies shine -- is in the gorgeously detailed, tactile production design. We've gotten so used to fantasy environments rendered as 1s and 0s that seeing the sets and miniatures, built by human hands and reacting to light the way real things do, is actually breathtaking. Yes, CGI has gotten so photorealistic that it can be difficult to tell the difference, but there's no substitution for the real thing. The Boxtrolls has the real thing, and so much of it. Every corner of the frame is packed with inventive detail. Long stretches of screen time go by with hardy any dialogue, allowing for totally visual storytelling. In its best moments, The Boxtrolls is pure movie magic.

For all its incredible craftsmanship and sly humor, The Boxtrolls might still be Laika's least successful effort to date, if only because it lacks the commitment to its more fantastic elements -- there are entire sections in which it seems uninterested in exploring the expansive universe it builds by hand. It's a movie that doesn't quite measure up only by a high standard, though, and after The Lego Movie is probably the best animated film I've seen this year.
To be fair, I'm probably more of a mark for Laika's films than most general audiences, in part because of my love for stop motion animation and in part because they tend to tell stories about monsters and/or the supernatural. The Boxtrolls delivers the least on the latter, but makes up for it with gorgeous animation, a dark sense of humor and some mature messages. If nothing else, it's got Elle Fanning's character, a young girl obsessed with the macabre, relishing in all the gory details of, well, gore. What kid who grew up a horror fan can't relate to that? The Boxtrolls isn't horror, but it's not a bad place to start.


  1. Great review, Patrick. I was looking at the posted stills marveling at the lifelike lighting and depth of field effects before realizing it was all practical with miniatures. Looks really good. Any notable reactions on the story from the children who attended?

    1. Sadly, there were no children at my screening. But some people say I'm pretty immature.

    2. I caught this in a packed screening. About 90% of the crowd were children - the place smelled like chocolate and candy. It played really well - they found it funny more than scary. Plenty of giggles and squeals - particularly with the "naked" reveal and also Snatcher's final scene. Plenty of Dads guffawing too.

      Funnily enough, halfway through the movie two kids next to me had a rather lengthy conversation on whether the hechmen were "goodies" or "baddies" before their mum shushed them - proving Patrick's point in his review, I guess.

  2. Here's a question about the look of the movie: in motion, does it look as grimy as the posters make me feel? I just get this weird queasiness from the posters, like I need to clean under my fingernails.

  3. Good review. I really love the look of Laika's movies and, like you Patrick, am a total sucker for stop motion. I'll definitely be seeing this. To me, ParaNorman didn't top Coraline, so I hope there isn't a law of diminishing returns kind of thing going on here. I'd love for this studio to continue pushing forward as a sort of Pixar of stop motion -- groundbreaking animation coupled with great storytelling (Cars and its sequel excepted).

  4. ParaNorman was one of the best movies of 2012. Very interested in this.