The Boxtrolls (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Boxtrolls (2014)

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Years ago, mysterious creatures known as boxtrolls snatched a baby from his crib after murdering the infant's parents.  But as the years go on the creatures prove to be little more than nuisances while they're exterminated for the crime.  Little does the populace realize that this baby has been living safely with the boxtrolls for years, and events in the human world force him to come back to the life he never knew.  Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi direct The Boxtrolls from a screenplay by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava.

Scaling the flaming giant for equalityI had an “ah-hah!” moment watching The Boxtrolls that helped make sense of how adults instill complex philosophical issues in children’s films. They do it by being as blunt as possible. Writers as early as those for The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons were commenting on entertainment and illusion, the ‘90s cartoon The Tick had the titular character engaging in a debate on existentialism with a projection of himself, and now with The Boxtrolls we’ve got two well-meaning heavies of the bad guy who banter around with dialogue like “You think these boxtrolls really understand the duality of good and evil?”

In one mindset, this could come across as the musings of a bored creative team (see Happy Feet Two for a fitting example). But the dialogue in The Boxtrolls underscores a point which runs through the entire film about the way different systems of morality come into conflict with one another. Some characters think they are good but are doing evil, some embrace their evil and push it further with propaganda, some are decent but perpetuate evil through inaction, and the most innocent are content to live their weird lives with their more driving desire is just to do so in peace.

Ben Kingsley does a fine job voicing villain Archibald Snatcher, but based on his design I hoped Timothy Spall was the voice.

Ben Kingsley does a fine job voicing villain Archibald Snatcher, but based on his design I hoped Timothy Spall was the voice.

The Boxtrolls is a gentle and surprisingly complex introduction for children into the reality of living in a world where good and bad people have trouble deciding which is which. It uses the titular creatures as an effective stand-in for any outsiders who are maligned simply for being different, then makes even the villains complicated by showing how the system which runs their society pushes them to evil ends. All this is done while engaging in frequently silent and lovely animation that switches to grotesque humor so quickly and successfully it avoids tonal whiplash.

The design of The Boxtrolls is engaging from frame one on. The world of the humans and boxtrolls is precipitously balanced on the more fortunate living directly on top of the less fortunate. Even at the broadest levels the world prepares us for the class and identity issues which the script will later delve into. I love the way this is reinforced by the way the boxtrolls’ environment is improvised from found discarded parts and repurposed trash while the higher class humans throw out clothes if they so much as get a smudge on the fabric.

As the central entities of the film, the boxtrolls needed to be engaging, but I wasn’t prepared for the creativity which surrounded their characteristics. They can’t speak well, and directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi choose to express their communication through physical actions rather than pointed grunting. Sure, there are plenty of noises stemming from the boxtrolls, but they’re during long passages of physical drama and comedy where the boxtrolls peck at one another during a nightly excursion or one lovely moment where the boxtroll Fish (Dee Bradley Baker) forms a musical bond with his adopted human Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright).

The stop-motion style employed for The Boxtrolls is a good thematic choice as well. It makes all the humans move and behave just as oddly as the trolls despite their attempts to seem normal otherwise. This leads to some interesting tension when Eggs flaunts high society’s rules and tries engaging them like a boxtroll would – by waving his hands around crazily and licking the arms of women he’s supposed to offer a polite kiss to. There’s a bit of hesitation before this woman freaks out, like she’s trying to decide whether this is what she wants or not, that speaks to the weirdness lurking inside all the humans.

Despite the sweet emotional core there are plenty of odd details throughout The Boxtrolls, like the severed teddy head that rotates at the center of this scene.

Despite the sweet emotional core there are plenty of odd details throughout The Boxtrolls, like the severed teddy head rotating at the center of this scene.

Those humans are the ostensible villains, and I phrase it that way because they’re all just sad people locked into a system they aren’t interested in thinking about. The main villain, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), is capable of mortal sin but created this way because of an environment which pits him against others in his lower class. Those in the higher class, such as the snooty Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), are lazy and complacent in their position because they’ve never had to think about what their privilege does to others. The family bond between Eggs and the boxtrolls challenges this because it shows the classes don’t need to work against each other and there’s plenty of resources to spread around for the good of all.  The Boxtrolls shows if the social system doesn't work then it's time to band together with your comrades and build a new one.  In another great detail, the representation of this privilege is cheese (a nice callback to Wallace and Gromit) and the way it’s implemented results in some surprising body horror with a hilarious and gruesome finish.

The importance of reaching across seemingly incommunicable experiences to change for the better results in some funny dialogue (“I’m not obsessed, I just can't stop thinking about them gnawing off my toes and turning them into a necklace) and silent moments of stirring empathy. The Boxtrolls is a great entertainment for all ages and if, like me, you have a weakness for puns then The Boxtrolls is happy to indulge with some directions. I wasn’t aware of how to get to Curds Way before The Boxtrolls, now I know Milk turns into *bah-dum-pssshhhh*.

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Tail - The BoxtrollsThe Boxtrolls (2014)

Directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi.
Screenplay written by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava.
Starring Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Nick Frost, and Richard Ayoade.

Posted by Andrew

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