The Boxtrolls (2014) / Animation-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG for action, some peril and mild rude humor
Running Time: 97 min.
Cast (voices): Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Dee Bradley Baker
Small role (voices): James Urbaniak, Toni Collette, Laraine Newman
Director: Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi
Screenplay: Irene Brignull, Adam Pava (based on the novel, "Here Be Monsters!" by Alan Snow)
Review published September 27, 2014
Alan Snow's 2005 illustrated novel, "Here Be Monsters!", provides the basis for this loose-hanging adaptation, set in the Victorian-era cobblestone city of Cheesebridge, where a community of cardboard box-wearing trolls lives underground. The peace-loving trolls come out at night when humans are asleep, and they take the blame when a child goes missing, giving them the unfortunate rep of eating the human young when left unchecked. That boy (voiced by Wright, Closed Circuit) is actually raised by the boxtrolls, given the moniker of 'Eggs' because of the box he's wearing, and he grows over the last ten years thinking he's a troll just like all his caretakers.
Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley, Ender's Game) is an evil schemer who sets himself up as the town's exterminator of boxtrolls, vowing to completely eradicate them from existence after he's put the proper scare into the folks of Cheesebridge. Snatcher sees this opportunity to join the ranks of the 'white hats', as the city uses the color of the clothing accessories to denote status, and he aims to join the upper crust by any means necessary. The daughter (Fanning, Maleficent) of one of the white hats is Winnie, who becomes Eggs and his troll friends' only ally in trying to let the city know there's nothing to fear from the trolls, except Snatcher's plans to exterminate them.
The Boxtrolls is a Laika production, the stop-motion animation studio that brought the hits Coraline and ParaNorman to the big screen. There's a lot of talented people behind the scenes for sure, as evidenced by the sheer amount of meticulous detail involved in what we see going on in each and every scene, though it's not exactly easy on the eyes. There is a certain grotesqueness to the overall look of the film, from the gnarl-toothed character designs to the gaudy costumes to the baroque sets. The humans look just as hideous as the boxtrolls, one might argue, but the voices really bring much needed personality to the roles, even making those who are ugly and a little scary looking adorable.
While still a technical marvel to behold, the storytelling is a bit murky. For instance, how does Eggs know English so well when his whole life has been spent among trolls who barely speak a word of it? Why does it take Archibald over a decade to figure out how to snuff out the boxtrolls who don't seem to be making much of an effort to hide themselves any more than they had been before the curfew?
While the movie will largely be seen as something for younger viewers, adults will likely find the subtext of the story, which deals with complacent or fearful attitudes that allow the seeds of genocide to take root when groups are scapegoated as the source of societies ills. One could easily translate the rise of Hitler in Germany to Archibald Snatcher's attempt to drum up support in a country with wide economic disparity, raising his clout by fear mongering the powers that be to join him in villifying the Jews. Snatcher's men even use the, "We're just following orders," line so often attributed to the Nazis under Hitler's rule.
As with Coraline, some will be reminded of the darkly humorous animated works produced by Tim Burton, who commissioned similar work in stop-motion animation with a dash of the macabre in its design, all drawing influence from the works of Roald Dahl. As with many films based on material that aims at younger readers, The Boxtrolls does suffer from seeming overlong, even at 97 minutes, as if a short story were expanded to a full-length feature without enough interesting developments within to keep that momentum humming along at a good clip.
Nevertheless, there's enough creativity, whimsy, and interesting underlying themes to recommend The Boxtrolls for kids old enough to appreciate a darker, more sinister animated effort than the traditional candy-coated, frenetic cash-grabs Hollywood usually throws at the younger set. Sometimes it's good to think outside the box.
-- There is an extra scene part way through the end credits.
©2014 Vince Leo