Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Flattened Out

Film: The Boxtrolls
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

If awards were handed out for weird, The Boxtrolls would certainly win more than its share. It’s movies like this that make me worry for the fate of a company like Laika. They may not have the wholesomeness of Disney or the mass appeal of Pixar, but this is not a company that has ever let a bizarre idea get away. The issue is that their ideas are so singularly weird that I question their mass appeal. The Boxtrolls lost $10 million, which makes me wonder how much longer Laika can put creativity above box office demand.

And now I’m given pause, because I don’t really know how to tackle the narrative aspect of The Boxtrolls. While films like Neco z Alenky are certainly stranger in many ways, this is the oddest mass-market animated film I have ever seen, at least for a film directed primarily at a young audience. I’ll do my best, but if the next couple of paragraphs appear as word salad, forgive me. This isn’t a very forgiving film in terms of plot elements.

A collection of strange creatures called boxtrolls live underground. They get this name from their habit of wearing boxes as clothing. They are timid creatures, prone to hiding in their boxes when frightened or cornered. Each boxtroll takes his or her name from the product on the box, so we get characters with names like Fish, Shoe, and Fragile. As the film begins, we see them run off with a young baby. A rumor spreads through the town that the boxtrolls have stolen a baby and have eaten it. Enter Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), who offers to rid the town of the boxtroll menace. In exchange, he wants a white hat. The white hats, we learn, are the most important men in town and are allowed to gather at meetings where they taste the rarest and finest of cheeses. Why? Because this town is obsessed with hats and cheese.

In truth, the boxtrolls are actually inventors. They go through garbage and refuse piles to find mechanical devices, which they take to their underground cavern to fix and to create new mechanical devices. The young child is eventually given a box of his own and giving him the name Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright). But above ground, Snatcher and his three henchmen—Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade), and Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan)—continue to hunt down the boxtrolls so that Snatcher can get his white hat and eat cheese, despite his being violently allergic to cheese.

Fast forward 10 years, when Eggs is spotted by Winifred (Elle Fanning), a precocious young girl fascinated by the blood and guts aspects of the boxtrolls. As it happens, Winnie is the daughter of Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), the town’s mayor/cheesemaster/guy with the biggest white hat. And, of course, craziness ensues with massive mechanical contraptions, naked boxtroll butts, and disturbing reactions to lactose.

The Boxtrolls absolutely gets the look right. This is a gorgeously animated film done the old-fashioned stop-motion way. (There is, in fact, a lovely little tribute to exactly how much work goes into this in the middle of the credit sequence). It is a rich visual field as well, with complicated scenes lovingly and painstakingly animated throughout. I never thought I would say this about any film, but the animation is as good as or better than anything done by Aardman Studios, and that, friends and neighbors, is a very high bar. It’s also a grimy world, not the sort of bright and cheery place normally expected from this sort of film. Everything is dirty and greasy, but strangely beautiful. It’s something Laika does well.

There’s also some very good voice work. In particular, Ben Kingsley is on form and all three of his henchmen are excellent. In fact, it’s that quartet that get the best lines and offer the best delivery. I’d watch a film of Trout and Pickles, because they’re a lot of fun.

Sadly, the rest of it falls pretty flat. Scrape away the layers of weirdness, and there’s not a lot left. I’d challenge pretty much anyone to watch this film and give me more than a sentence or two about any of the characters. So much appears to have gone into making the world itself memorable that there was little in the way of making the characters themselves memorable. Lord Portley-Rind spends the entire movie ignoring his daughter until we get the moment at the end when he doesn’t. Eggs just wants people to like the boxtrolls. Winnie just wants to see blood and guts and to get attention. It’s a stretch to make even the major characters two-dimensional here.

I watched this tonight with both of my girls and a friend of my older daughter. I think the older girls liked it (they said as much), but they were also able to nail plot points before they happened. That’s either a testament to one of them being my daughter (this is what I do, after all) or a further indication that beyond the strange veneer, this is a very linear story. My younger daughter is unsure whether she liked it or not. I agree with her. I think I did, but this is a dip in Laika’s films even as it is a high point in their visual style.

Why to watch The Boxtrolls: A singular vision.
Why not to watch: Beyond the look, it’s flatter than an unfolded box.


  1. The movie preview looked very iffy to me, and I had no desire to see this film. I'm not even sure it got released in Korea; maybe it did. A lot of stop-motion animation these days seems to be derivative, in terms of concept and execution, of ideas churned out by Tim Burton and his atelier years ago. It's a look that says, "Yeah, we're weird and ugly characters, but there's beauty in ugliness"—a moral lesson that's fine maybe the first five or six times you experience it, but that falls flat when every damn animation director thinks he needs to steer his film in a quirky direction in order to both succeed at the box office and send a message. (I had much the same feeling about "Coraline.")

    I'm glad to read that the voice acting was good, but I'm still not convinced I need to grab and watch this movie.

    1. I think it's worth a watch if you're really into animation. It is beautifully animated. But yes, the story goes exactly where you think it's going to go in the first couple of minutes. There are no real surprises here, and that's a damn shame.

      In terms of being derivative, Kid #1 mentioned several times that she thought it looked like Corpse Bride and a couple of other movies.

      I liked Coraline, but as far as Laika films go, they have yet to approach ParaNorman, which really is pretty spectacular.

  2. Of the five nominees, this was the one I liked the least and it's the only one I wouldn't recommend. It seemed to focus on being grotesque only for the sake of being grotesque.

    I think it was based on a children's book. If so, I'm not sure if the thinness of the plot is the fault of the movie or the book.

    1. That's a fair enough point about it being based on a book. Still, there could be some effort made in making the characters interesting beyond the visuals.

      This was a real disappointment. Based on Coraline and ParaNorman, I've come to expect a lot from Laika, and this was a real let-down.

      I ended up giving it 3 stars on Letterboxd, which is the lowest I'll go for a film I claim to like. It's right on the edge and I considered dropping that score to 2 1/2. In fact, I reserve the right to do so at a later date.