Let’s check in with Laika, shall we?
The house that Will Vinton built and Travis Knight remodeled is still going strong, but things have been rocky lately. Only a few months ago, Laika shut down its advertising department, displacing dozens of animators here in Portland. It was a shock to our local film industry, especially considering how many jobs and corporate dollars were lost in the shutdown, though Laika’s motion picture department still remains open and active in Hillsboro. In fact, they’re currently looking for a second studio in the area, expanding their operations to release stop-motion films on a more regular basis.
To recap the films they’ve released so far, Coraline is of course still a classic of children’s cinema. Their previous film, Paranorman, was also very good, though weighed down by a very wordy climax. So now, for Laika’s third and most recent offering, we have The Boxtrolls, based on a kid’s book by Alan Snow. Even though you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a reimagining of “The Jungle Book.” Seriously, the ads showed us a kid being orphaned and raised by animals, before a pretty girl lures him back to civilization. I mean, come on, that’s “The Jungle Book.” And maybe also Tarzan, come to think of it.
In retrospect, however, those apparent similarities speak more to the poor marketing than the film itself. It’s really much better than that.
Our story begins in the town of Cheesebridge, when a boy was mysteriously taken away by one of the eponymous boxtrolls. Our villain (Archibald Snatcher, voiced in a tour-de-force performance by Ben Kingsley) takes advantage of the situation by spreading rumors that boxtrolls are horrific beasts who will steal and eat any unattended children. He then promises to rid the town of every last boxtroll in return for a white hat.
This brings us to our next faction, ruled by Lord Portley-Rind (Jarred Harris). He’s the head of the city council, a bunch of bourgeoisie dolts marked by their white hats. It’s ostensibly a huge honor to earn one of these white hats, though no one in the town’s higher class seems to do much of anything except obsess over cheese and enjoy being rich. These are people who would rather spend money on a giant wheel of brie than a children’s hospital. I’m not even exaggerating, that actually happens in the movie.
Thus the villagers have something of a dilemma. On the one hand, Snatcher is a complete and total bastard. He’s entirely devoid of manners, he’ll get his way no matter what evil things he has to do, he’s delusional to a… Oh, who the hell am I kidding? He’s a monster. That’s where the film is going with this, and it’s not the least bit subtle in making the point. The boxtrolls aren’t the monsters, it’s the human villain who’s the monster. Hardly a new concept, I know, but the character is played in such an over-the-top eeeevil manner that he’s so very much fun to hate.
And the townsfolk do hate Snatcher. Everyone in the town hates him. But they hate the city council so much more that they’d still rather see the boorish git get his way and stink up the elite ranks out of spite. That’s how badly off the town of Cheesebridge is.
Then we have the boxtrolls themselves. Needless to say, the stories of their violent nature have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, the boxtrolls are so deeply pacifistic that they refuse to fight or even run from danger under any circumstances. They bear an uncanny resemblance to the proverbial ostrich, except that instead of sticking their heads in the sand, they’ll tuck their heads and arms into the boxes they wear. They’re very good at hiding, in large part because they’re such masterfully resourceful creatures. The whole reason why they go above ground at all is to scavenge parts that they can tinker and invent with back in their underground home. Also, they eat grubs and insects, certainly not people.
So why would such a peaceful species abduct a child? Great question. I’m not going to answer that here.
Speaking of the child, let’s meet our protagonist. He’s called Eggs (voiced by newcomer Isaac Hempstead Wright), because the boxtrolls are all named after the products on the boxes they wear. Even though Eggs doesn’t look like a boxtroll, he’s long outgrown the box he was adopted in, and he’s somehow the only one in the cavern who’s learned how to speak English, he of course was raised to think of himself as a boxtroll. Until circumstances inevitably change.
For one thing, Snatcher has been winning. During the obligatory montage to show Eggs growing up, we can see that the boxtroll ranks have gone down at an alarming rate, until only a handful are left. That’s when Eggs goes out to learn more about what Snatcher is up to, and meets up with Winnie Portley-Rind (neglected daughter of the aforementioned lord, voiced by Elle Fanning) along the way. From there, we’re off to fun and adventure.
Because this is a Laika picture, some things will be a given. The production design is sterling, the voice cast is solid, the 3D effects are absolutely worth the price of admission, the action scenes are exhilarating, and the animation (aside from a few choppy moments) looks incredible overall. Also, this film continues the proud Laika tradition of bringing dark and twisted imagery to the screen, just scary enough to keep all ages entertained without leaving scars for the littler ones.
However, a lot of old problems resurface here as well. I’ve already said that Paranorman suffered for being preachy in its closing act, and I’m sorry to say that this third act falls into a similar trap. This movie is much better at balancing words with spectacle, to be sure, but the problem is still there. Moreover, the movie is very explicit in its role reversal, depicting its monsters as scared and vulnerable while the humans are paranoid, stupid, and violent to a sadistic degree. That’s exactly what Paranorman was all about, but without the “zombie film parody” angle that gave the concept its novelty.
On the other hand, the film does take its premise to some new and interesting thematic ground. For example, it goes without saying that identity is a huge part of the story, as Eggs tries to figure out whether he’s a human or a boxtroll or something in between. Yet the movie expands on the concept of identity by introducing the factor of class. After all, our main villain is motivated entirely by his desire to join the ruling class, and his goal is seemingly an end in itself. But even if he (or Eggs, or any of the other characters, for that matter) went up or down on the social ladder, would it really change who he is?
Oh, and speaking of Snatcher, it bears remembering that he trumped up rumors of the boxtrolls’ violent nature, polarizing the town to such an extent that he created a war for the purpose of advancing his own agenda by way of preying on everyone’s fear. It’s subtle enough that the parallels will go over the heads of children, but some adults may find some allegories here for certain recent events. Just saying.
Of course, the film doesn’t preach about politics so much as it talks about identity. Though the movie also talks a great deal about courage, conformity, standing up for what’s right even when it’s hard, and so on. The boxtrolls are a prominent case in point, since they eventually have to learn how to quit hiding and start acting out of self-preservation. However, the “courage” aspect is also explored through Mr. Pickles and Mr. Trout (respectively voiced by Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost) a couple of comic relief henchmen who start to question their work for Snatcher. Though there is a third henchman (Mr. Gristle, voiced by Tracy Morgan of all people) who’s a mindlessly sadistic little gremlin, to keep things balanced.
Also on the subject of comic relief, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Madame Frou Frou. She’s a comic relief who also works as a vision test: If you don’t immediately know what her big plot twist is going to be from the moment she first appears onscreen, you need to get your eyes checked.
I’m very sorry to say that the plot is deeply flawed. Though there are a few neat surprises here and there, way too many of the plot twists were telegraphed well in advance. It also doesn’t help that the pacing is lopsided, with a drawn-out first act padded with redundant exposition and way too many montages. Oh, and Eggs’ origin was held from him for absolutely no reason, that’s another drawback.
On a miscellaneous note, there’s no way I can end this review without talking about Winnie in greater detail. It’s always refreshing to see such a proactive female lead, especially in a kids’ film. But more than that, Winnie is notable for how she looks like this sweet little girl dressed in pink, even though her tastes are disturbingly macabre. Even though she was raised to fear the boxtrolls — and make no mistake, she is deathly afraid of them — she takes an alarming amount of glee in recounting tales about the boxtrolls eating faces off and making necklaces out of phalanges. When she finally arrives at the boxtrolls’ cavern, Winnie is genuinely upset to find that there aren’t any rivers of blood or mountains of human skulls. Basically, Winnie is an aggressive person with an offbeat sensibility, exactly the type of person that Eggs and the boxtrolls need for that push out of their comfort zone.
Finally, one more miscellaneous note: Stay through the credits. At least until the mid-credits stinger. You’ll definitely want to see it.
In spite of all my nitpicks and all the various flaws that the movie has, I have to stress that The Boxtrolls is not a bad movie. It’s creative, it’s funny, it’s energetic, it’s thrilling, and the darker imagery is very smartly used. The strength of the presentation also counts for a lot, with fantastic voice acting across the board and dazzling visuals that are well worth the 3D premium. What’s more, the story is built around some solid kid-friendly themes, even if most of it is expressed in a blunt manner and a lot of it was carried over from Paranorman.
It isn’t a bad movie, but it still isn’t even close to Laika’s best (Coraline). It isn’t even the best animated film released this year (The Lego Movie or How to Train Your Dragon 2, take your pick). I think that’s ultimately the biggest disappointment about this movie: It’s good, but we know that Laika can do so much better. Still, Laika is far from rock bottom and I have every reason to believe that their next project will be truly great.
Incidentally, what is their next production? *checks Google* It’s rumored to be Wildwood, an adaptation of the Portland-based fantasy novel written by Colin Meloy (yes, of The Decemberists). Given the track record of movies shot and set in Portland (Gone, Extraordinary Measures, Body of Evidence, etc.), this should be really interesting.
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