Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Boxtrolls (**1/2)

Directed by Graham Annable &Anthony Stacchi


The work from Laika Studios - the only major animation studio focusing exclusively on stop-motion animation - is unique in a very charming way. They have not given in to the cheaper, less labor-intensive, more popular trend of CGI animation. This makes their films stand out. The images being recorded are real as opposed to the wonder of digital recreation that comes from Pixar and the other major animated film studios. Whether one is better than the other is up to each individual person's discretion. After the wonderful Coraline and 2012's Paranorman (which I did not see), their latest film is The Boxtrolls. Like their previous films, The Boxtrolls shares the love of the grotesque and the absurd, an obvious Tim Burton-inspired string of images that can be beautiful and horrifying at the same time. The film itself possesses an allegorical screenplay (written by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava) based on a Alan Snow children's book called Here Be Monsters!, that does its best to stay low-brow for the children and metaphorical for the adults. What we get is a film equal to some of Tim Burton's more uneven work, a movie with a central conflict between its story, its audience and its choice of images.

I was a small child when Tim Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas came out, which is the film that was basically the godfather to all Laika-style filmmaking (though it should be said - because it's often forgotten - that the film was only produced and based on Tim Burton's characters, but was, in fact, directed by Henry Selick), and I remember at that time thinking that the film was terrifying. I was a prudish moviegoer as a child, and I scared easily, and so from that point of view it's always been strange to think of movies like Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride as well as the Laike Studio films as kids movies. But, for the most part, that is always how they're categorized. I felt the same way about Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are, but that's a totally different discussion. The Boxtrolls is a bit different. For one, it has the characters of the Boxtrolls themselves which function in the same way the Minions did in the Despicable Me films: monsters, for sure, but surprisingly adorable and cuddly. Like all post-Gremlins films about small other-worldly creatures, we come to learn pretty quickly that the monsters are actually more civilized than the humans that find them so repellent.

The Boxtrolls live beneath the streets, wearing boxes for clothes. The boxes become convenient when they need to hide: they collapse inside and appear to the outside world to be just a simple box lying on the ground. They only come out at night when everyone is asleep and go about the city streets, digging through trash for various knick-knacks to bring back with them to their underground lair. Amongst the trolls is a orphaned human boy they call Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), named after the box he wears - all the trolls have names based on the product their boxes were meant for. Eggs was discovered by the Boxtrolls and raised by them. Eggs doesn't realize that he's a human boy, but instead combs the night streets with his fellow Boxtrolls. When they return home they feast on roaches and worms and make use of all the gadgets that they found throughout the night. They like to build things, and their home is filled with crudely constructed machinery, made up spare parts that run the various electrical gadgets in their home. It's a calm and steady ecosystem which they have created, but not all are happy about it.

The main enemy of the Boxtrolls is Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), a crooked-toothed, pot-bellied gentleman with grand dreams of becoming a member of the White Hats, a group of cheese-loving older men who act as the city council. The White Hats sit in their "tasting room" where they're meant to work out societal issues but nearly always get distracted by their wide variety of exotic and exquisite cheeses, and Snatcher wants nothing more than to be in that room eating cheeses with those high society gentlemen. Snatcher hatches a plan shortly after the Boxtrolls take in the orphaned Eggs. Snatcher frames the event as an abduction, claiming that the Boxtrolls are dangerous child-snatchers who will eat their flesh and pick their teeth with the bones. He makes a deal with one of the White Hats, Lord Portley-Rind (Jerrid Harris): if he can extinguish all of the Boxtrolls from the city, he will then be given his own white hat and be allowed in the tasting room. And thus begins a years-long job, as Archibald and his collection of odd ball cronies begin snatching the Boxtrolls off the street one by one. Before long, there aren't many left, except Eggs and his surrogate Boxtroll father, Fish, amongst others.

The sole hope for the Boxtrolls comes in the form of a young girl named Winnie (Elle Fanning), who sees Eggs with the Boxtrolls. Winnie also happens to be the daughter of Lord Portley-Rind, and is often frustrated by her father's inaction and his cheese obsession. When she gets caught up in the battle between the Boxtrolls and Snatcher, it's her who convinces Eggs that he is, in fact, a human boy and not a Boxtroll himself. Together, they try to take on the evil Snatcher who becomes more and more ruthless as he gets closer and closer to his coveted white hat. As a villain, Snatcher does his job well. He looks scary without much effort, but he's also equipped a few details of character that make him plainly absurd. There's his habit of pretending to be a female performance artist named Madame Frou Frou; her act is most responsible for spreading the common narrative of the Boxtrolls as child killers, and she also has the heart of the White Hats. Most problematic is his love of cheese which is complicated by allergic reactions which cause him deforming inflammation on one side of his body. His cronies try to convince him to give up cheese, but he continues, even though they have to cover his face with leeches to stop the grotesque swelling.

Snatcher's arc is an interesting one, but a disturbing one as well. The ludicrousness of his blind greed just to be able to sit and a room and eat cheese with other men is consistent with the film's tone on the whole, but his character seems almost unnecessarily ugly (physically and emotionally) to the point where it was quite difficult for me to watch him on screen. Perhaps my reaction to Snatcher was a callback to my childhood where I instinctively turned away from this kind of oddball animation, perhaps my pre-adolescent fear came back. But even if that is the case, there are still quite a few leaps that The Boxtrolls asks you to take simply to understand the world in which this film takes place. The White Hats are an obvious stand-in for inactive government, and their love of cheese meant to represent the flabbergastingly ridiculous things that they may take precedent above the needs of the people. But as a metaphor this felt like both something that would be a bit too on the nose for adults and a bit too obscure for children. The bridges don't connect here, and I fear in trying to spread the wealth, The Boxtrolls may have lost both of their prospective audiences.

But perhaps the biggest logical question I had with The Boxtrolls was how Eggs could possibly think that he's a Boxtroll and not a human. Didn't he notice that he never fit in his box like the rest of them? Didn't he notice that his skin wasn't blue? That he was much taller than all of them? How is it that he understands the Boxtrolls' language of grunts and squeals and all he ever speaks is English? It's the kind of thing that you could probably get away with in a book, but on the screen it played out as a giant plot hole that I could never really manage to get over. But the film does persevere despite this. It has real wit in its humor, and some of the voice performances, particularly from Fanning and Harris, have a real pop. I found myself enjoying quite a few individual moments throughout even if I was left a bit disenchanted by the whole experience. I guess I will never be comfortable with the idea of a film like The Boxtrolls as a children's movie, but it's something I can get over without much effort considering that I myself am not a child. But will American children be able to sit through two extended scenes of Snatcher basically turning into the elephant man after eating some cheese? I'm skeptical.

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