Movie Review – Boxtrolls, The

Alternately charming and creepy, The Boxtrolls is a film mixing both childish charm and adult terror with mediocre results. While the animation is dazzling, and the voice acting is typically superb, the unsettling nature of both the plot and visual tone will probably disinterest (or frighten) some children and bore many adults. Personally, I marveled at the technical achievements here, and found the characters compelling, but there's something.... off about The Boxtrolls that works against it.


– Summary –

Director :  Graham Annabale + Anthony Stacci
Year Of Release :   2014
Principal Cast :  Voice of Ben Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Elle Fanning, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Simon Pegg, Dee Bradley Baker, Steve Blum.
Approx Running Time :   90 Minutes
Synopsis:  In the town of Cheesebridge, a human boy named Eggs and his friends, the box-wearing fixit-up Boxtrolls, take on the cruel troll hunter Archibald Snatcher and his plan to rid the world of all the trolls forever.
What we think :  Alternately charming and creepy, The Boxtrolls is a film mixing both childish charm and adult terror with mediocre results. While the animation is dazzling, and the voice acting is typically superb, the unsettling nature of both the plot and visual tone will probably disinterest (or frighten) some children and bore many adults. Personally, I marveled at the technical achievements here, and found the characters compelling, but there’s something…. off about The Boxtrolls that works against it.


Don’t kick a box.

One part fantasy, one part family allegory, one part Prodigal Son, The Boxtrolls stomps into existence with a steampunk tone and a lively, if downcast, visual style. Set in the early 1800’s, in the fictional village of Cheesebridge, The Boxtrolls‘ alarmingly adult final act almost undoes the great work the first act sets up – death, mayhem and destruction are par for the course in modern films these days, but The Boxtrolls has the misfortune to take itself very seriously in this regard, especially considering the demographic it’s aimed at, which is…. who, exactly? The Boxtrolls is unsuited to young children, as there are well more than a few scary scenes of menace, and adults might find the simplistic story of an orphaned human child adopted by underground-dwelling boxtrolls a tad unmemorable, if altogether unsurprising, so I guess that only leaves the pre-teens and undiscerning adolescents? Neither of which category I fall into. Still, The Boxtrolls offers something for almost everyone; as an animated film, it’s quite beautiful, and as a story its fairly obvious in its “message” – be who you want to be, not what people expect you to be – so if the quality of a film rests on its plot and look, The Boxtrolls knocks it out of the park. But as a whole work? Sorry, but there’s something wrong here.

Not what I meant when I said "boxing things up".
Not what I meant when I said “boxing things up”.

In Cheesebridge, the sewers and underground tunnels beneath the town are filled with friendly (if timid) creatures known as Boxtrolls: they wear old cardboard boxes as clothing. One of their number, an abandoned human child named Eggs (voice of Isaac Hempstead-Wright) lives as one of them. He knows not of his father, whom it is believed abandoned him years prior after a confrontation with local pest controller Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), who will become a member of the town’s ruling council, the White Hats (led by Lord Portley-Rind – a terrific Jared Harris). Snatcher and this trio of henchmen, Mr Trout (Nick Frost), Mr Pickles (Richard Ayoade) and Mr Gristle (Tracy Morgan) spend their nights hunting down boxtrolls, while Snatcher’s daytime alter-ego, a hideous drag-queen, retells the false boxtroll story so as to convince the townsfolk of their wickedness. Eggs soon learns that he’s not a boxtroll, and sets out trying to uncover Snatcher’s evil plan, aided by Lord Portley-Rind’s daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning).

Preeeeety sure this ain't an Autobot.
Preeeeety sure this ain’t an Autobot.

The Boxtrolls is a hard film to countenance. One the one hand, it’s a whimsical, charming attempt to capture a nightmarish fantasy world inhabited by box-wearing trolls and their human adopted child. On the other, it’s a terrifying descent into one man’s obsession to become a cheese-eating elder of the town, in spite of a horrific allergic reaction to the dairy product that renders him a grotesque emblem of disfigurement. The Boxtrolls is neither pleasant nor endearing; rather, it’s almost entirely the opposite of the bright, shiny family fare we expect from Disney or Pixar or Dreamworks. Animation studio Laika, who gave us Coraline and Paranorman, have delved deep into the grab-bag of period English iconography to deliver a “children’s” film that is almost anything but. It’s not that The Boxtrolls is completely unsuitable viewing for youngsters, but there’s a lot going on in this film that deserves explanation to the littlies, including themes of abandonment, adoption, cruelty, allergies, vague allegorical racism and eugenics, and most assuredly one of the more frightening villains in recent kids film memory.

Superbowl commercials were particularly fun.
Superbowl commercials were particularly fun.

The Boxtrolls’ unique visual style, a steampunk-esque sense of stop-motion that exists in angular design and stick-thin figures, is bravely non-conformist. It’s a shadowy nightmare-world that isn’t as slick as an Aardman animated production (in terms of its melancholy moodiness) nor is it as welcoming. As moody as this film’s aesthetic is, The Boxtrolls‘ uneven plot brings it undone more than anything else. The quest by Eggs to find out who his father was, and what link he has with Snatcher’s reign of terror on the subterranean Boxtrolls, is ostensibly simplistic, even though it’s a plot painted with dark brushstrokes of some grotesque artists depression.

Nope, they don't like fire.
Nope, they don’t like fire.

The film’s adept characterization of Eggs, Winnie and the odious Snatcher tends to override the more anarchic elements of the plot, the themes of abandonment and alienation, as well as fitting in (themes children often associate with in formative years) are all handled with an uneven nature by directors Graham Annabale and Anthony Stacci, who give Alan Snow’s book, Here Be Monsters, a pared-back moodiness that works in fits and spurts, rather than as a cohesive whole. I found myself able to pick apart the story’s trajectory without reading the source text, and although the film jettisons several characters it still feels overburdened with design. The film looks too busy – if that’s a term I never thought I’d write for an animated kids film – and has too much “stuff” going on. Too many notes, ya know? Yeah, Mozart woulda torn me a new one for saying that. But The Boxtrolls angular design and thunderous cacophony of artifice makes the film difficult to watch from a purely visual perspective, which makes any character outside of the key players tend to blend into the noise.

So there's a little bit of 3 Stooges going on here.
So there’s a little bit of 3 Stooges going on here.

The cast all do a terrific job, don’t get me wrong. The human players in the film are excellent, especially a villainous Ben Kingsley as Snatcher, a truly vile and vulgar villain as you’ll see in a children’s movie. Snatcher feels like a character designed by Barry Humphries and performed by Andy Serkis, skewed through the lens of David Cronenberg. It’s a terrific piece of design, Snatcher, and Kingsley relishes the role with all the spittle-generating pomposity he can muster. Isaac Hempstead-Wright is typically Young Hero in his portrayal of Eggs, bringing what little nuance he can to a character so destined to save the day and find his father, it’s visible from space. Elle Fanning is lovely as Winnie, the always ignored daughter of the town’s local mayor. The trio of henchmen employed by Snatcher provide much of the film’s comedy relief (which calls on them a lot, actually), and Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Tracy Morgan all deliver some chuckle-worthy moments. But for me, the bolt from the blue is Jared Harris’ portrayal of the snobbish Lord Portley-Rind that strikes the biggest chord. Harris, better known as Moriarty from the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes sequel, delivers a character so impossibly obtuse to his surroundings, so galvanized by the degustation of cheese, that he nearly steals the film outright from Kingsley and Co. It’s a close call, but for me, this was the real highlight of a cast filled with highlights.

We promise, we won't tickle him that much.
We promise, we won’t tickle him that much.

While I’d hesitate to say The Boxtrolls is a complete disappointment or failure, there’s enough problematic thematic material here to keep me from recommending it without caveat. It’s not a total wash, not totally beyond redemption, but it’s a hard film to “like” in the pure sense of the word. Plot-wise, it’s not quite new, but in the desperate attempt to revamp an old fable the film staggers under the weight of additional exasperation. The voice cast deliver, but the film’s dark tones and undercurrent of bizarre and fantastical will alienate many, if not most. Worth a look for fans of Coraline and animation, but check it out first before unleashing it on your kids.