When the first trailer for The Boxtrolls came out, it seemed pretty progressive. The trailer touts the idea that parents come in all shapes, sizes and forms (and yes, sometimes boxes). It intimates that not all families include a mother and a father. I was excited.
The Boxtrolls is based on Alan Snow’s kids novel, Here Be Monsters! It follows in the footsteps of Laika’s previous work (Coraline and ParaNorman) both in its approach to adaptation and in its aesthetic. The plot is quirky and imaginative and features stunning stop-motion animation typical of the studio. Unfortunately, The Boxtrolls just doesn’t have the same charm as its predecessors.
The story takes place in the town of Cheesebridge during Victorian-era England. The boxtrolls live underground in a cavern (and inside cardboard boxes) intricately decorated with the knickknacks they find at night. As for the creatures themselves, they come off as timid but incredibly sweet.
Naturally, they terrify humans. True to form, our pragmatic response is to get rid of the boxtrolls entirely. We quickly learn from aptly named human antagonist Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) that the boxtrolls have stolen and eaten a little baby. This event spurs Snatcher’s followers into action, gathering under the mantra that all boxtrolls need to be eradicated.
Snatcher has other motives, however. We discover he wants to use the death of the boxtrolls as his ticket out of the lower class and into high society (an elite group known as “The White Hats”). This group is composed mostly of rich, caricatural old men who sit around all day eating nothing but rare stinky cheeses.
Of course, contrary to Snatcher’s rhetoric, the boxtrolls are not monsters. They merely found an orphaned human and decided to raise the baby as one of their own. The child (Isaac Hempstead Wright) is given his very own box to live in labeled “Eggs,” the title from which he takes his name.
The biggest problem with The Boxtrolls is that it simply has too much going on. Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi send too many messages, including (but not limited to): “don’t let labels define you,” “different isn’t bad” and “it’s not okay to oppress minorities.” These themes confuse one another as they fight for our attention.
These lessons also fall to the wayside in the midst of a twisted and disturbing storyline. While this is ostensibly a children’s movie, as with the very adult Coraline, some children may be deeply scared by some of the more intense scenes. Morevoer, they may not necessarily understand the black humor used to get the audience through these moments. It is a shame the film skews so mature, because the morals the film is trying to impart are certainly important for children to learn.
The other issue with The Boxtrolls is that the characters are not very unique. Eggs is earnest in his desire to stand up and make things right for the boxtrolls, and his human friend, Winnie (Elle Fanning), is your typical bossy, nosy, smart-mouthed little girl. By contrast, the boxtrolls are lovable and immensely fun to watch. They communicate solely through grunts and chest pounding. Ironically, they deliver more affecting messages of love and empathy than any of the speaking characters.
Though the characters are underdeveloped and the moralism a little overwrought, the movie does have its saving graces. In particular, The Boxtrolls revels in a beautiful score and top-notch animation. These elements help offset the scarier parts of the story with bright sets and a wonderful classical music score.
Composer Dario Marianelli does a fantastic job creating a well-rounded soundtrack for the movie. His music wonderfully matches every mood, playing up the happy moments and while emphasizing tension in the more serious scenes. The vibrant soundtrack adds significant depth to the characters and plot through clever use of leitmotif.
While the world of Cheesebridge is dull and gray – the drabness representing human fear and ignorance – life is bright and happy for the boxtrolls underground. There is meticulous thought put into these handcrafted sets and it shows. The boxtrolls live in a world that reflects their happiness.
Their home is full of colorful bugs and a starry night sky, simulated through scavenged light bulbs, while the only blooming signs of life in Cheesebridge are the colorful cheeses and dresses of the upper class. The dulls palette of the city allow primary colors to stand out. For example, Snatcher and his Boxtroll Exterminators wear red; it is obvious they are the bad guys.
Snatcher’s evil henchmen, Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade) and Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), are instant highlights. Their banter over whether they’re the good guys in the story supplies consistent laughs. Ayoade’s natural knack for humor (see his work in The I.T. Crowd or The Mighty Boosh) is especially evident throughout.
Although The Boxtrolls is oddly put together, it’s not enough to ruin the fun – at least for the adults in the audience. In my favorite scene, Eggs and his adoptive boxtroll father, Fish (Dee Bradley Baker), play along to a record with handmade instruments built from scrap. It is The Boxtrolls at its best: a simple, joyous moment that conveys themes of family and music. The film has heart, however misshapen it may be.
Movie Verdict: Meh