The Boxtrolls tells three different stories, each of them quite tragic.
First and foremost is the story of Edward Trubshaw who was taken from his father as a baby and raised by trolls. Learning to trust these strange but benevolent creatures, the boy thrives. Then having settled into some kind of life with this surrogate family, they are in turn, one by one snatched away from him. It sounds just like something from the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson.
Then there is the young girl, Winifred, growing up in an upper class home with an apathetic mother and a father who does not know how to connect with her. Her parents are more concerned with maintaining their position in society than they are for her and she is left to largely fend for herself, lonely and yearning for companionship. Rather than the stuff of fairy tales, this is a narrative not unfamiliar to readers of the great Victorian novelists like Hardy, Dickens and Elliot.
Finally and most intriguingly we are told the lyrical tale of a man desperate to gain power and respectability. Over time he turns his back on his morality, selfishly driven on by ambition, all the while blindly working toward a goal that will surely destroy him. This sounds like one of the short stories of Mark Twain or perhaps even something from the pages of Ovid or Shakespeare.
All in all these are bigger themes than you get in your average kid’s movie.
Mind you, anyone who has seen the work of animation studio Laika before, will know that they are not interested in producing average kid’s movies.
Laika are like a slightly darker, gnarly version of Pixar. Both are pioneers in their field, both boosted by support from a great American entrepreneur (Steve Jobs for Pixar, Nike co-founder Phil Knight for Laika) and both seem to be more focussed on the quality rather than the quantity of their output. Mind you Laika are in the laborious business of stop motion animation so it is no wonder they are only producing a feature film every two or three years.
The way Laika differ from Pixar is in their sensibilities. To illustrate this think of the unimpeachable character and square chin of Buzz Lightyear or the shiny bodywork adorning Lightening McQueen. These are not the kind of thing you will ever see in a Laika film because they like things a little more grubby. Think less Walt Disney and more Roald Dahl.
This style of storytelling combined beautifully with the writing of Neil Gaiman and the design and direction of Henry Selick in 2009’s Coraline. That film is still by far their best work but then it is one if the finest animated films ever made so that’s a benchmark it is okay not to meet.
Following this was the similarly superb ParaNorman, which was inspired by Hammer Horrors but had its zombie heart firmly in the right place.
This latest film, adapted from the book Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow, takes place in another wonderfully intricate world. There is no denying it, there is something inherently charming about stop motion animation that you just don’t get with something created purely in a computer. This is why some CG animations, such as The Lego Movie and Magic Light Pictures’ TV adaptations of Julia Donalson’s books, strive to create the same look.
It is tempting to see this style of film making as old school but I’m sure the technology has moved on from Morph as much as it did between Snow White and Frozen. A friend who worked in computer special effects once told me he’d spent time working for Aardman, digitally erasing the finger prints from the plasticine in Wallace & Grommit’s A Close Shave. I have to admit to feeling a little cheated at the time but the pixels are still only there to enhance the incredible model work.
Irrelevant to exactly what went into The Boxtrolls, it looks fantastic. As suggested, the story goes to places others may fear to tread but pulls it off. Where it suffers in comparison to Coraline and ParaNorman is with the central characters, particularly heroine Winnie who is (quite deliberately) more than a little odd. It is harder to root for her than the courageous children the studio has given us before.
The character is voiced by Elle Fanning, who is one of my favourite young actors, but she doesn’t do as well as her big sister, Dakota, did playing Coraline. In fact few of the main characters are as endearing as those in the back ground. Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, for example, are great as Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles, the ethically conflicted henchmen.
Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hempstead Wright is fine as protagonist Eggs but the show is totally stolen by Ben Kingsley as grotesque villain Archibald Snatcher. His may well be the greatest voice work done for an animated bad guy since the days of Peter Ustinov as Prince John and George Sanders as Shere Khan. (Sorry Scar, you are playing second fiddle again.) You can practically hear Kingsley rolling every word around inside his mouth before he spits it out. I know he has done menacing plenty of times but after this and Iron Man 3, someone needs to find this guy a smart comedy.
The Boxtrolls may not measure up to its own studio’s previous films then but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s not better than the vast majority of other children’s films and it has plenty to recommend it. I’d take this over Rio 2 and even The Lego Movie any day.
In fact, you know that odd bit with the people at the end of The Lego Movie? See The Boxtrolls for how it should be done.
Is this one for the kids?
This might seem like an odd question but actually ParaNorman and Coraline were both notable for being very very creepy, especially the latter.
The Boxtrolls is a PG and does have naked Troll bottoms and bodily distortions but is actually a good deal less scary than its predecessors. I saw it with my five year old daughter and while she was holding her hands over her face at one point, she was only ever covering one eye. She actually enjoyed it a great deal.
The Ripley Factor:
Fanning’s Winifred is only one of two named female characters but she is head strong and resourceful and does move the action on in a couple of significant places.
She is partly there to inspire the young male hero but actually he is quite driven without her.
She is also a little blood thirsty and while it is good to see females demonstrating traits typically reserved for the boys, I will let you decide whether this is a good thing or not.