Release Date: 2014
Productions Company: Laika Entertainment
Cast Includes: Ben Kingsley, Simon Pegg, Jared Harris, Elle Fanning, Isaac Hempstead-Wright
On the surface this is a children’s film, though perhaps one that’s better appreciated by adults in its detail, a paradox of subtle and flashy styling but not really knowing whether it should have been a none-too-deep action caper or a crafty look at cultural prejudice. It went for both and lost something along the way, visually enticing but weak in its storytelling. Still, one for people who like dark/black humour or just those with/related to kids who like a bit of a thriller.
Who are the boxtrolls, what are they?
Vermin, dangerous, dirty; they’ll kidnap your children and kill them.
They live underground. Lock your doors and windows, don’t go out at night, they lurk in the shadows.
Ten years ago in a town called Cheesebridge sometime in the Victorian era a scientist and a baby went missing, the scandal has since come to be known as the ‘Trubshaw Baby’. Much like the Pied Piper of Hamelin (the fictionalised accounts not the theories) something had to be done. Cue Archibald Snatcher the rat err scratch that the boxtroll catcher (akin to the child catcher re: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) who makes a deal with the mayor Lord Portley-Rind, membership to the council in exchange for boxtroll extermination.
Ten years later the boxtrolls are still little trolls that wear discarded boxes as clothing, hide in them like turtles if necessary, and have a habit of taking metal things left outside that aren’t so discarded even if they’re nailed down. One however isn’t very troll looking, in fact he’s very boyish looking and like every other troll he’s named in conjunction with his box, in his case that’s ‘Eggs’. Eggs is the adoptee of Fish and both are greatly upset and confused over the ever dwindling population of their peers. Where are they are all going and why does the town/city hate them so much?
On the journey to discover the answers to those questions and also who he is – he is a troll, how can he not be, he’s not a boy (hey says) – he uncovers some sinister secrets, some dastardly plans and a girl called Winnie who doesn’t seem very nice either.
Can Eggs save his friends and family, can he prove everyone wrong? (Will the town stop lauding street theatre and music hall?)
People vs Boxtrolls simplified to Us vs Them
Remember The Wombles and The Jungle Book? The boxtrolls are a quiet though not quite unassuming species, like those furry recycling critters they collect items and make castles (not really, but usable and inventive items) out of other’s trash. They’re furtive and timid; scared of humans, scared to be seen and scared to stand up for themselves even if good at stacking up together (*ahem*). They have however one human member.
This is a US production with a very British feel. The characterisation is very clear cut and cliché down to their pun-full names; the trolls are misunderstood, hunted and abused – that much we get, people do that to everybody and everything. That they’re all meek and frightened with every last fibre of their being is a bit dubious, no blame there just a little cynical. Enter one generally clueless, mild mannered and nice boy and then one very attention starved/needy, rude, forthright girl. They’re both the product of their environments and too young to have developed much from their initial personalities but one thing they have in common is determination and interest in finding out just what exactly is happening to the missing boxtrolls, even if her interest is macabre…
There’s much in the way of offbeat satirical humour for example Archibald’s assistants Mr Trout, Mr Pickles and Mr Gristle engage in ironic, philosophical musings about life and their place within it whilst carrying out dastardly deeds in the employ of a dastard. In contrast the boxtrolls (Wheels, Sparky, Socks, Clocks, Bucket, Specs, Fragile, Sweets, Oil Can, Knickers, Shoes and Fish) don’t speak a language I recognize and whether gibberish fabricated by the producers or actually constructed and encoded they’re enigmatic in sound when expressing themselves to each other but subdued in mannerism the rest of the time.
Elitism is further highlighted through what looks like a Masonic order in the town/city, one aspect being its White Hat, Red hat system. The White Hats are the deciders, the owners, the pillars of society, the old and nobly titled money. The Red Hats are not ‘have nots’ but still not quite there. Archibald is desperate to be a White Hat and Lord Portley-Rind doesn’t really want him but new money must be acknowledged even if condescendingly once it’s proven itself useful if not worthy. In our reality the term ‘White Hat’ is usually an opposite to ‘Black Hats’ and more recently ‘Grey Hats’ i.e. the ‘good guys’ (people investigating and raising public awareness about issues – not supposed to be Masons or members of any Order, theoretically), the ‘bad guys’ (people working in black markets, secret services/organisations, the ethos of business over the lives of others) and ‘the in-betweeners’ (whistleblowers, insiders, people who were on one so-called side and decided to or at least appear to change sides, or people who provide a platform for any side). Funnily enough to finally prove one’s eligibility in the film (after status and means) one must know one’s cheese. No pun intended. Seriously, you have to be a real cheese whizz I mean connoisseur. Now I’ve been to a cheese exhibition and I’ve been downwind of it and on top of the already ‘fragrant’ Thames it was not something I’d choose to remember but these guys adore eating cheese copiously. Perhaps a nod to Wallace and Gromit, perhaps highlighting that cheese (and wine) are still currencies in some places and investments in many others but either way if you want to be one of the big boys you’d better like it. Unfortunately for Archibald it doesn’t like him.
This is a stop motion animation and as such holds a certain charm for me, it could be said that since the advent and progression of CGI it’s been rendered unnecessary but digital art is also massively time and energy consuming, plus they can be complimentary. The movement of stop motion characters/backgrounds can be clunky and the overall style thought of as childish but I think this film has managed a good level of fluidity and I challenge anyone to think about the film Coraline (2009) and consider it puerile (both Coraline and The Boxtrolls were produced by Laika studio). Interestingly the first stop motion animations that come to mind are The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), The Trapdoor (1984-86) and Corpse Bride (2005) all horror fantasies but then you have Wallace and Gromit (1990-present) and it’s spin off Shaun the Sheep (2007-present) so the genre is pretty varied.
The most striking thing about the film is the level of detail, from the faces and expressions on the characters to the finer points of their clothing and their surroundings. The architecture is stunning; cobbled streets, dingy at night and in the poorer parts to gauche and eye opening/brow raising at the cheese buffets. The colours are not always bright but they are vivid and every scene lavish in their own way. There’s even an ode to steampunk in the plot, though I think it steals the show and to its detriment.
The accents are believable given the cast features many British actors. The most notable being Ben Kingsley in a nod to German brethren in a Brit version of the classic rat cum child catcher aka Archibald Snatcher and he voices the villain with zeal. I’m usually adverse to big names in animations unless they can enunciate and convey character through voice alone and obviously he can. At least it’s not a big name cast in general though a few are recognizable. Even with a US actor in the leading female role (Elle Fanning as Winnie Portley-Rind) the vocalisation is an accomplishment of distinct tones and personalities.
For me it’s not of the utmost importance that a plot be complex or for characters to undergo deep and meaningful development. As long as the story is well told and the characters suit it then I’m not too bothered but even taking into account the age rating and general target audience of this film (kids and their guardians) the plot isn’t portrayed as well as it could have been. If it wasn’t for the impressive visuals and quirkiness of the characters it would be another ‘can’t be bothered to watch but ok as background noise’ movie. It feels like the plot is secondary to the dressing making the film feel shorter than it is (although that’s better than making it feel longer and dragged out). The focus is overbalanced towards the action and gags hence becoming formulaic. The action seems more for the children as it’s not palpitating enough for older more desensitized people and the dialogue of the adult characters could potentially go over the heads of youngsters due to the time period, class differences and colloquialisms. However there’s enough [silly and oddball] humour to bridge the gap e.g.
Winnie: [sees Eggs rubbing his crotch] No!… You don’t scratch there in public. That’s why they’re called [whispers] privates.
Winnie: You’re the worst pickpocket I’ve ever seen. Here [Gives Eggs a coin]. Buy a book on how to be a better thief.
Mr. Pickles: We’re exterminators! Of justice!
Mr. Gristle: We exterminate justice!
I haven’t read the source material i.e. ‘Here Be Monsters!‘ By Alan Snow so can’t say how faithful it is to the text but as a standalone product it’s a decent flick with the parts I didn’t like so much almost compensated for in other areas but ultimately I think it came down to style over substance. Despite having sufficient surprise elements and emotion those things just felt forced. The plot had promise, lots of themes to work with: slavery, classism, demonizing due to looks, fear and mutual complicity in oppression/suppression, being raised in a different social/cultural group, elitist ‘in the club’ rituals/traditions – easily dismissed as hard going for a children’s film but there are many such films that have managed it (some with a lot of flair) and many children living in such conditions and a Victorian setting usually implies some kind of child abuse (Charles Dickens anyone?) If they hadn’t compressed feelings that arise from those themes into sporadic moments/sequences the film would have been better. As it is they created a beautifully detailed environment that promised something special but didn’t quite deliver.
Rate: 3.5/5, I can’t give it a 4 because ultimately I didn’t find the storyline passable and to be honest, boring overall.
Over the Garden Wall (mini-series 2014) – this was a unique fairy tale featuring some very well known talent, in strange melodic/mesmerizing pace. Two brothers go trick or treating only to find themselves in another world where a woodsman carries a soul in a lamp, pumpkins live in a town, a bluebird talks and they sing songs about molasses. Folksy meets old school Mickey Mouse/Betty Boop – it has a niche and surreal feel that reminds me of the elaborate yet creepy world of The Boxtrolls.
Unstable Fables: 3 Pigs & a Baby (film 2008) – a funny, fractured fairy tale where a baby wolf is left on the doorstep of the three little pigs and they do their best to raise and love him as their own. He grows up believing he’s a pig but with puberty comes changes and bad crowds. Can he resist or make peace?