Laika is that rare production company where you absolutely have to pay attention to whatever they put out next. As one of the last few studios that specializes in stop motion animation, their films have garnered a lot of well deserved praise. With such a demanding production, their output is limited to one film every few years, the pressure is on to make every film count.
The company’s last film, ParaNorman, went on to become my favorite animated film of 2012 so I jumped into The Boxtrolls hoping to see some amazing work once again. Thankfully, The Boxtrolls is another hit for Laika…but unfortunately isn’t a hit out of the park.
Directors: Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi
Release Date: September 26, 2014
Based on Alan Snow’s novel Here Be Monsters!, Boxtrolls takes place in the small town of Cheesebridge. A town where fancy men in white hats taste fancy cheeses while small creatures wearing boxes roam the streets at night. One night, a baby goes missing and the entire town blames the Boxtrolls. The town exterminator, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), who’s trying to earn a white hat, then begins hunting down the poor fellas. All the while a young “Boxtroll” named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) finds out that he just might be the black sheep of his family.
When talking about Laika’s films, it’s important to get the obvious out of the way. Boxtrolls is gorgeous. The folks at Laika are masters of their craft as each character moves with a pleasant fluidity, the world is draped in a pale pastel, and a slick layer of grime covers the world’s color. The look of the film really sells the inherent philosophical nature of the film (which basically questions the rift between the English upper and lower classes) as everything is just a bit murky. For example, nearly every citizen in Cheesebridge has a blue hue. You’d figure it’d be weird seeing humans with blue skin, but it’s mixed in with shades of pink. As in saying, the further into darkness a person falls (as the bad guys have more blue than others), the less “human” they are. This all adds a fine layer of depth to Boxtrolls that could be easily missed.
You see, Boxtrolls is a children’s film about the duality of good and evil (One of those “who are the real monsters?” situations). And while this makes for an intelligent film, it doesn’t always make an entertaining one. Since Coraline and ParaNorman were skewed toward older audiences with darker overtones, they were allowed to explore shadier aspects of childhood trauma because it didn’t have a larger effect on the overall nature of those films. Here, Boxtrolls attempts the same but it’s unfortunately trapped within an “all ages” approach. This probably comes across as an odd criticism to make, but the film’s brain doesn’t quite mesh well with its body. For example, as mentioned earlier in the review, the film dissects English society’s (or a cartoonish version of it, anyway) class system. And while this is hidden under satire (the rich folks literally do nothing but eat fancy cheese), some other things aren’t as lucky. Much of the film is so direct, it’s off putting at times.
Whether it’s a result of its appeal to a younger audience (and thus not trusting childhood intelligence), there’re many spoken bits about its greater theme at hand (the villain’s henchman constantly fret about their position in the story, for example). So many the film is almost bogged down by its many messages which come to a head during the film’s noticeably slow paced second act. As it starts as a children’s film where families can come in any shape and size, evolves into a film of conflicting political philosophies. This is why I’m puzzled. It’s good that the theme evolves, but it shouldn’t feel so forced. This is a criticism I’ll admit doesn’t apply to very many other folks. I’m positive this won’t be a huge issue to most.
Overall, The Boxtrolls is a good film. It has a star studded cast (Ben Kingsley gets a musical number and it’s great), looks astounding, and the trolls themselves are adorable, but it’s held back by its overbearing themes. There’s an even greater film lying underneath if it had just hadn’t been so direct about what it was trying to get across and instead allowed the viewers to discover it on their own.
But hey, there’s a lovable story here if you missed all of the clashing themes too. So you’ll enjoy yourself until you get bored in the middle.