The Boxtrolls is so defiantly weird and bleak, so committed to the bitter end to its grotesque aesthetic and chilly story, that even as the film crashes and burns you can’t help being moved by the hardworking stop-motion animators’ devotion to their craft.
There is very little here for viewers to love, but clearly the filmmakers loved it all: every crooked tread in every skewed staircase; every corrugation of the battered cardboard accouterments of the title creatures; every swollen pustule on the inflamed face of the disastrously cheese-allergic villain.
Yet the lessons that should have learned from making Coraline and ParaNorman haven’t been learned. The crew at Laika have crafted a world rife with all the grotesquerie of earlier projects, but virtually none of the humanity. The misanthropy and progressive pieties that marred ParaNorman have bloated into a debilitating, blinding blight.
It’s not without inspiration — enough, perhaps, for a short film. In fact, the promising opening act almost plays as an evocative animated short. This sequence introduces us to the ramshackle Victorian island town of Cheesebridge; to its local bogeymen, the hide-and-seek Boxtrolls; and to the Boxtrolls’ underground realm, with cardboard-lined tunnel chutes, roller-bed trestle and pneumatic-tube exit to the surface.
Alas, this opening act virtually exhausts the film’s invention, making the rest a long slog of almost unremitting unpleasantness. I appreciate nearly every film in the mini-genre of stop-motion macabre, from Corpse Bride to Coraline, but grotesquerie alone is not enough. The Boxtrolls goes on from its opening to manage some nicely choreographed slapstick action and a few startling conceits, but no visual relief, no new wonders to look at.
Imagine if Despicable Me featured just one of the three orphans being raised from infancy by Minions, with no Gru in sight. I know everyone loves the Minions, but they’re comic relief at best; they aren’t developed as characters. Neither are the Boxtrolls, even the ones that get names, like Fish, Wheels and Bucket (all voiced by veteran voice artist Dee Bradley Baker).
It’s worse above ground. The town of Cheesebridge is like a mishmash of Dickens that’s all nasty Squeers, Quilps, Fagins and Havishams, unrelieved by any cheery Fezziwigs, Tapleys, Pickwicks or Wellers.
Both worlds get one (1) sympathetic child-hero who is at least effectively an orphan. Our subterranean hero is a Boxtroll-raised human boy called Eggs, voiced by Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hempstead-Wright. (Boxtroll names come from words or pictures on the boxes they wear.)
Above ground, there’s Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning), the spirited daughter of Cheesetown’s leading couple, Lord and Lady Portley-Rind (Jared Harris and Toni Colette). Winnie’s ennui with her privileged life has left her with a disconcerting enthusiasm for violent, gruesome fantasies. (Elle’s elder sister Dakota voiced Coraline, and when Winnie scowls you can see the resemblance.)
Winnie’s father is a blithering idiot of a particularly rarefied sort with only two concerns in life. Taking priority over everything else, including the town’s practical and humanitarian needs, are his private cheese parties with the effete set, distinguished by their white stovepipe hats. His other priority is ridding Cheesebridge of every last Boxtroll — a task for which he hires villainous Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), an oily would-be social climber who pathetically longs to don a coveted white hat and join the cheese parties of the effete set.
The Boxtrolls enthusiastically embraces three of the tiredest, most grating clichés of contemporary Hollywood family entertainment — all of which I am so done with:
After the variously moronic, disapproving, flat-out evil, incompetent or at least weak dads of recent family films including Maleficent, The Croods, Epic, ParaNorman and even Coraline, it’s not easy to sponsor a stand-out contender for Worst Family-Film Dad Ever. The Boxtrolls, though, is up to the challenge.
Even stern, unsympathetic fathers in animated films (think Stoick in How to Train Your Dragon) generally come around and redeem themselves in the end. Not Lord Portley-Rind. His wall of vapidity is serenely impenetrable. No appeal from his daughter or anyone else, no crisis however grave, is sufficient to waken him to what a rotter he has been all his life.
Lord Portley-Rind isn’t the only father figure. Eggs’ surrogate Boxtroll father, Fish, is at least kind and good, if not strong or wise. And, not to spoil anything, there’s another father figure (Simon Pegg) who is a broken soul, both pathetic and sympathetic. Neither invests fatherhood with much dignity or authority.
Yet, as far as mothers are concerned, it’s still very much a man’s world. The Boxtrolls is actually heartsick over paternal failure (though not heartsick enough to, you know, actually redeem Winnie’s father), with much hand-wringing about “what a father is supposed to be like.”
Yet Winnie also has an equally vapid mother — voiced by an accomplished actress, Colette, who has played consequential mothers (The Way, Way Back; The Sixth Sense) — who might as well not be in the picture at all. Not only do the children never consider turning to her for help, there isn’t even any fretting over “what a mother is supposed to be.”
Add Lady Portley-Rind to the long, long list of family-film mothers who aren’t there or might as well not be, even when the fathers are. (Recent examples include Maleficent, Kung Fu Panda, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, How to Train Your Dragon, etc. Do not get me started on How to Train Your Dragon 2.)
And, of course, The Boxtrolls adds yet another schoolmarmish PC parable about differences, prejudice and fear to a lineup that includes Maleficent, Frozen, Happy Feet, How to Train Your Dragon, Hotel Transylvania and, of course, ParaNorman. Those we vilified as monsters — witches, dragons, vampires, zombies, trolls — why, they’re misunderstood victims.
If there are any real monsters, they’re people like Archibald Snatcher, along with his wacky henchmen, two of whom (Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade) uncomfortably suspect that they may be villains rather than good guys. (They’re like that pair of bickering pirates in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, comically thoughtful and articulate, but not self-aware.)
All this, and I haven’t even gotten to the cross-dressing. Or the outrageous climactic moment of “oh no they didn’t” gruesomeness: a nasty Roald Dahl comeuppance by way of Edward Gorey (or Itchy and Scratchy).
A lovely, poetic mid-credits coda, in which Frost’s and Ayoade’s henchmen carry on their philosophical jaw as the stop-motion illusion begins to break down, in a way only makes it worse. When a soulless corporate product like Planes: Fire and Rescue sputters, it’s barely worth a shrug. When a handcrafted labor of love like The Boxtrolls goes bad, it’s a tragedy.
Kubo and the Two Strings comes close to being a masterpiece, and one of the two best American animated films in years, the other being Pixar’s Inside Out.
Why does stop-motion animation work so well as a medium for the macabre, from The Nightmare Before Christmas to Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride to Coraline?
With its dark tale of changeling parents and imprisoned souls, Coraline comes closer to the spirit of the traditional European fairy tale than perhaps any other film, animated or otherwise, in recent memory.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.