After you watch The Boxtrolls, come back and listen to Dana Stevens and Movie Mom's Nell Minow discuss the movie in our Spoiler Special.
I wanted with every fiber of my being to love The Boxtrolls. The animation studio that made it, Portland’s Laika, stands for everything I value in contemporary animation: smart, subversive stories that neither condescend to children nor winkingly pander to adults. A commitment to writing female characters who drive the action rather than waiting to get rescued from it. A dedication to craft that extends down to the most minuscule details of production design. (Laika’s three features so far—Coraline, ParaNorman, and now this one—have been done using a combination of old-school stop-motion animation with some drawn animation and CGI.)
To my ongoing chagrin, my 8-year-old daughter dislikes the theatrical viewing experience, but when a movie comes along I know she’ll love, I pull rank and just make her go. I was excited to think that the unimpeachably adorable Boxtrolls—timid blue-gray beasties who wear discarded cardboard boxes like turtle shells—would join the ranks of girl/fish Ponyo, Lego man Emmet Brickowski, and the minions of Despicable Me, all characters she grew to adore despite her reservations. But at the end of this busy but disappointing movie, I knew I wouldn’t be dragging her out to the theater. Why did the story of this huggable species’ attempted extinction leave me emotionally indifferent?
The Boxtrolls’ problem may have to do with how incidental to the action those lovable blue-gray guys soon become. After a nifty early montage chronicling everyday life in their jury-rigged underground world, the trolls become little more than sacrificial goats in their own story, useful as hostages or potential victims but rarely (until one too-little-too-late reversal) individuated characters making decisions on their own behalf. Indeed, for a long stretch in the film’s second half, nearly the entire Boxtroll population is locked away off-screen while the various human tales are told. If there were actual Boxtrolls, hashtag activists would have legitimate cause to launch a Twitter campaign (#FeedTheBoxtrolls?) protesting how passive and dependent this movie makes them look.
Directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable, The Boxtrolls elevates Laika’s dedication to craft even further. Every frame pops with beautiful, whimsical design and clever background gags. The feats of stop-motion magic are constant and jaw-dropping, and the stereoscopic 3-D (viewed at my screening through fancy battery-powered glasses) looks as crisp, bright, and un-headache-inducing as any I’ve ever seen. But there’s just something about this film’s elaborately allegorical story (based on Alan Snow’s novel Here Be Monsters!) that feels inorganic and contrived. Where Coraline and ParaNorman had stories that flowed directly from the very human plights of their strong title characters, The Boxtrolls seems constructed from the top down, with abstract ideas rather than people (much less trolls) moving the action forward.
I’ll try to condense the plot’s many moving parts into one (long) paragraph. In the vaguely Dickensian town of Cheesebridge, there are two classes of society: the White Hats, idle aristocrats who pretend to run the town while actually engaging in lengthy bouts of cheese-tasting, and the Red Hats, ordinary people who perform the tasks that keep the town running. The most odious of those jobs is the nightly hunting of the Boxtrolls, who live underneath Cheesebridge in a cave full of ingeniously repurposed junk from the human world. For reasons that remain hazy (one flaw no one could accuse The Boxtrolls of is an overlong origin story), these gentle, nearly nonverbal creatures have long been feared and reviled. Propaganda posters represent them as bone-chomping monsters that, if not rounded up each night, will eat human children. But the head of the troll-hunting squad, the nasty Red Hat Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley), seems motivated less by troll-hatred than by status-seeking and greed. He’s got his eyes on a coveted white hat and a place at the table with the cheese-eating elite. Meanwhile, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a human boy orphaned as a baby and raised by trolls, decides to find out what’s happened to his disappeared comrades. He infiltrates the human world to enlist the help of a lonely, cosseted White Hat girl named Winifred (Elle Fanning) in putting an end to Cheesebridge’s nightly troll hunts.
The unstructured but frequently very funny script, by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, goes to a lot of work to set up this apparent political parable, then evinces little interest in exploring its ramifications. How is the stability of Cheesebridge’s rigid class structure maintained? Are there disaffected would-be revolutionaries among the Red Hat population, or only cynical social climbers like Snatcher? The British comics Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost, who brilliantly voice Snatcher’s troll-hunting underlings, bring the film as close as it gets to larger social issues, defending the morality of their job in ever-less-confident terms. (“I’m 60 to 70 percent sure we’re still the good guys,” pipes Ayoade’s timorous functionary after yet another unholy deed.)
But The Boxtrolls’ questioning of the good guy/bad guy divide doesn’t extend to the characterizations of its actual heroes and villains. The Snatcher, as ominously voiced by Kingsley, is terrifying without being interesting; his evil is dimensionless, without origin or change. And the young human protagonists, while slightly more complex (Fanning, in particular, turns the morbidly troll-obsessed Winifred into an endearing weirdo) are too often tasked with clumsy, theme-underlining dialogue about the true meaning of family. With its wild swings between sentimentality and cynicism, this overstuffed parable may leave you unsure how to feel about humanity as a whole, eager to seek exile among the blessedly quiet trolls.
A recurring image in The Boxtrolls is that of a heaping platter of rich, smelly cheese, the namesake and favored luxury good of Cheesebridge, which apparently provides the driving force for much of that city-state’s class-riven culture. This food is made to seem alternately desirable and disgusting—sometimes both in quick succession, as when a character enthusiastically crams his mouth full of cheese samples, then spits the whole chewed-up wad out onto a plate. In the last hour, the film’s tonal ambivalence starts to shift markedly in the disgusting direction, culminating in what I truly hope will remain the grossest lactose-intolerance-related sight gag of 2014. The Boxtrolls as a whole isn’t unlike one of those towering platters of cheese, stacked high with lovingly handcrafted delicacies that for some reason leave you feeling faintly queasy.
One thing that sets Laika apart from its fellow high-end animation studio Pixar—apart from the dedication to traditional stop-motion technology—is a fascination with the macabre, a desire to push into areas of both genre filmmaking and the human psyche that children’s films seldom explore. Coraline and ParaNorman both exist in an odd space where the fairy tale overlaps with the psychological horror film: Between the two of them, there are plot points involving rigor mortis, Puritan witch trials, the replacement of parents by evil doubles, and the plucking out of children’s eyes. This dark irreverence isn’t for every kid (or grown-up), but Laika’s confidence that its sensibility will find an audience is part of the studio’s unique appeal. What ultimately brings down The Boxtrolls isn’t the film’s willingness to wade into grimmer, more gruesome waters than your average kids’ animated adventure. It’s the failure to anchor its often misanthropic story in a character or relationship strong enough to offer a glimpse of redemption—a place of respite in an ugly, cheese-obsessed world.