Review: The Boxtrolls
PLOT: Underneath the fanciful town of Cheesebridge lives a small civilization of lovable trolls, who've adopted a young boy to raise as their own. When a villainous exterminator vows to wipe out every last one of them, the Boxtrolls and their human counterpart must find away to escape their doom and live harmoniously with the people above.
REVIEW: I'll be perfectly honest, here: I quite often don't read reviews of movies before I see them, nor when I'm ready to write my own, but I was tempted to take a look at what critics were saying about THE BOXTROLLS before I embarked on a screening myself. To my surprise, I found that the latest from Laika, the studio behind PARANORMAN and CORALINE, was being labeled by some as too weird and unappealing; while its Rotten Tomatoes score is currently sitting at an overall positive rating, it appeared many of the reviews found the film eccentric and grim, which certainly comes as a surprise considering Laika's previous two movies had more than their share of surreal, not-quite-family-friendly imagery and subject matter.
But what the hell do critics know? THE BOXTROLLS is a delightful, endlessly entertaining stop-motion adventure. And yes, it is weird, but since when is that a negative trait, especially for a "children's movie" in an age where so many films - animated or live-action - are homogenized and easily digested. Brilliantly designed, screwy and sincere, the film does indeed seem destined to become more cult classic than breakout hit, but its fans will be loyal to the very end.
Partially adapted from Alan Snow's children's book "Here Be Monsters," THE BOXTROLLS is set in the town of Cheesebridge, a steampunk-esque city lorded over by the snobby, well-to-do White Hats. When not distracted by their love of all things cheese, the citizens of the town live in paralyzing fear of the Boxtrolls, who emerge from the sewers at night purportedly to snatch children out houses in order to feast on their flesh. In reality, the Boxtrolls are a gentle race of nonsense-spewing creatures who, as their names would indicate, wear boxes over their grey, awkward bodies. Like subterranean hoarders, the Boxtrolls only actually come out of their underground home to rummage through trash and collect all manner of junk that they in turn find use for, but their reputation was soiled when they did in fact abscond with a baby one night (the reason for this becomes clear later in the film, but rest assured they aren't kidnappers).
Said baby has since grown up to be a box-wearing young man, who speaks like a human but for all intents and purposes lives as his adoptive family does. Named Eggs because that's what his box says on it, the boy (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright from "Game of Thrones") of course must eventually learn that he's not a Boxtroll at all, but in fact a human with a complicated backstory. (His father was an inventor and is thought to be dead.) His self-discovery is aided by Winnie (Elle Fanning), a feisty girl who has family troubles of her own; her father (Jared Harris) is the big cheese in town, so to speak, and couldn't be more disinterested in her. This leaves her to obsess over Boxtrolls; she believes them to be vicious and blood-thirsty, but naturally she'll discover you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, as almost every animated film ever created will tell you.
The Boxtrolls' main enemy is Archibald Snatcher (voiced brilliantly by Ben Kingsley), an overweight, overbearing cretin whose desire to join the ranks of the White Hat aristocracy knows no bounds. Snatcher has positioned himself as a Boxtroll exterminator, and along with his three henchmen (voiced by Tracy Morgan, Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade), aims to rid the city of the perceived vermin, a feat he expects will get him his cherished seat among the city's elite. (In reality the White Hats want nothing to do with this boorish jerk.)
To be fair, notions of genocide and underground monsters aren't necessarily the lightest you can offer an audience of adolescents, but THE BOXTROLLS' tone is breezy and charming; the Boxtrolls themselves, with their garbled language and funky appearances, are harmless and sweetly awkward. Snatcher is a blowhard, goofy instead of scary, and Kinglsey's exaggerated drawl is a terrific match for the character's pompous exterior. (It is admittedly a bit freaky when Snatcher, allergic to cheese, breaks out in disgusting hives after consuming it.) I can't speak for young children because I haven't been one in a very long time, but I'm going to guess kids will be more delighted than frightened by the film's outlandish characters and set-pieces. (CORALINE, on the other hand, is a much more troubling experience, for my money.)In terms or overall message, THE BOXTROLLS isn't reinventing the wheel. "Just be yourself" and "can't we all get along?" are the main themes here, though the film flirts with having something to say about classism and racism in brief passages. Like the titular characters, the film is frequently ungainly and silly; you can't exactly call it nuanced. But if you don't necessarily come away in awe of its simple story, the breathtaking animation should definitely leave an impression. The folks at Laika have now made three completely visually arresting movies, each unique in terms of tone, and here they've convincingly made a storybook world that is nothing short of spectacular to behold.
Directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable have assembled an excellent voice cast, predominantly British, which will certainly earn this movie comparisons to the films of Aardman Animations. Kingsley handily steals the show, but Harris, Frost and Ayoade all bring their vocal A-game; Toni Collette and Simon Pegg have small but memorable roles as well. Basically, everyone is working at a very high level in THE BOXTROLLS, which I sincerely hope finds an audience attuned to its nutty ways.
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