The Boxtrolls: Who’s Gonna Talk to Our Children?

Boxtrolls

First of all, if you are a regular reader of this blog, let me apologize for the lack of posting in the past weeks. September turned out to be a much more transitional, and stressful month than I had anticipated. Anyway, I intend to get back into the fold. I’ll probably won’t be able to post as often as I did in the summer, but expect at least a couple posts each week. Now, on to The Boxtrolls… 

Let me start by talking, and this is not a spoiler, the very end of The Boxtrolls. There is a little scene in the middle of the closing credits of the movies, in which two of the characters talk to each other, in a very meta moment, about the idea that they are in a stop-motion animated movie. They reflect about how tedious the animation process must be, and how only crazy people could possibly work making movies that way. As they talk, we start to see an animator moving the characters around. It’s a behind-the-scenes moment that is not only cute and funny, but encapsulates what is so great about Laika, the animation studio that has quickly become one of the most reliable producers of family entertainment. Stop-motion animation is an arduous art-form, and sadly, barely bankable (Laika’s movies always make just enough of a profit to finance another one). And yet, here we have a bunch of creative guys that make this movies because they love what they’re doing. They believe in the magic of cinema, and they have something to say.

Part of The Boxtroll‘s plot revolves around oblivious adults who are too concerned about stupid ideas to make time to listen to their children. It’s a very common situation to be found in children’s entertainment, but it’s never been more at home than in a movie produced by Laika, which like I said, seems to be one of the few studios around who is willing to listen to children, or at the very least, to try to put themselves in their shoes, and think what stories would actually be stimulating for them. After the visually outstanding Coralineand the even better Paranormanthey seem to be getting into a run of quality movies that has made more than one person wonder if they are going to fill in the void left by Pixar, a studio that was once the king of quality family entertainment, and has now retreated to the commercial pleasures of mediocre sequels.

Why is Laika so great? Tim Brayton makes a great argument over at The Film Experience, as for me, it all comes down to the fact that it feels like the guys at Laika have something to say, and that the greatness of their movies is so tied up to the style of animation in which they work. The Boxtrolls, for example, beats to its own drum. Starting by the very fact that their movies look and feel differently from the tired photorealistic computer generated style that is overwhelmingly dominant in contemporary American animation. The Boxtrolls takes place in the steep and narrow streets of a mountain-town clearly influenced by German Expressionism. It has, at its center, a group of characters (the Boxtrolls themselves) who are as grotesque as they are cute. You also have characters that are voiced by pretty famous actors, who are so in service of their performance, that the voices of Toni Collette, Ben Kingsley, and Simon Pegg all unrecognizable.

Anyway, The Boxtrolls is a fantastically crafted movie, but what about it’s plot? It is the story of a kid named Eggs, who was raised by the Boxtrolls, who are in turn being chased by the evil Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), who is obsessed with finding the little creatures so he can be accepted into the high-class white hat cheese-tasting society. Not only this, but Snatcher has also made a pretty great job of convincing the townspeople that the Boxtrolls are evil monsters that should be feared by everyone. This last part is why L.A. Weekly film critic Amy Nicholson described the movie as “the cutest movie made about Hitler”. Certainly, propaganda plays a role in the movie, which is also very much concerned with ridiculous concepts about upward mobility and discrimination against the lower classes.

These messages are undoubtedly there, but it’s weird to say if they’re at the center of the movie. Actually, it’d be hard to say what exactly the emotional or thematic center of the movie really is. There is a lot on The Boxtrolls‘s plate, including Eggs’s struggles about his identity as both a human and a Boxtroll, Winnie’s relationship to her father, the Boxtroll’s reaction to danger by hiding in plain sight, and Snatcher’s real motivations for capturing the Boxtrolls, which include a character introduced late into the movie, who gets the short shift despite having a poignant backstory, and being central to Eggs’s emotional arc. Story-wise, The Boxtrolls is an incredibly messy movie -especially when compared to Paranorman, whose structure was so impeccable and original it ended up being one of that movie’s biggest strengths.

The Boxtrolls‘s strengths lie somewhere else, not in the story, but in its craft. One of the most original aspects of the movie is its pacing, where the story slows down in order to focus in characters moments, and set-pieces that are often tied to the movie’s style. Animation is invaluable, for example, in a scene where Eggs pretends to be a “proper boy”, and the same goes for the design, be it the refreshingly natural shape of Winnie’s body, or the aforementioned angular town where the movie takes place. Add to that the Boxtrolls, who are incredibly cute by being mischievous and animalistic, and a pair of henchmen who have an existential crisis about whether they are the good guys or the bad guys, and you end up with a pretty winning movie.

The Boxtrolls might be the messiest, and frankly, the least interesting of Laika’s efforts, but even a minor movie from them feels miles ahead of all the other American animation studios. After all, the movies they make are not products, they are treasures.

Grade: 7 out of 10

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2 comments

  1. davecrewe · September 27, 2014

    Nice review, man! I loved the look of this film but the narrative itself didn’t engage me; the themes of propaganda and discrimination are on-point, but hardly unique in children’s animation where the underdogs tend to be the good guys. Greatly enjoyed Frost and Ayoade as Snatcher’s dualism-obsessed henchmen, though.

    • Conrado Falco · September 28, 2014

      Thanks. I think we’re kind of on the same boat here, except I seem to have enjoyed the story more than you. And I agree, those henchmen were pretty awesome.

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