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At The Picture Show
September 2014

The Boxtrolls

Of monsters and men

Delightfully twisted and absurd 'The Boxtrolls' is another triumph for Laika

The Boxtrolls
Focus Features
Director: Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi
Screenplay: Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, based on the novel Here Be Monsters!, by Alan Snow
Starring: The voices of Isaac Hempstead Wright, Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning, Jared Harris, Dee Bradley Baker, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan and Simon Pegg
Rated PG / 1 hour, 37 minutes
September 26, 2014
(out of four)

The more it feels like The Boxtrolls is going through the motions of its predominant themes, the more I'm inclined to look again, and invariably notice all the subtler, stronger and infinitely more peculiar ways it's getting those ideas across. Most of what the film is about gets addressed in dialogue - a conversation between two children about the role of fathers; an obligatory speech about standing up for oneself; a conciliatory plea that hammers the implicit message of tolerance and coexistence - in ways that sometimes feel perfunctory.

But that straightforward dialogue largely obscures just how utterly bizarre and surreal the film is, at times almost running in conflict with those impulses. Certain sections of the screenplay feel like safeguards, as if the filmmakers are cordoning off their own weirdness in favor of more conventional emotional hooks.

But it's a testament to just how wonderful and distinct that weirdness is that it sticks in the memory so vividly, even after the more specific details have long since faded. Let me try to paint the picture. One of the two central story arcs is about a lonely, curious, spoiled but charming little girl named Winnie (voiced by Elle Fanning), who yearns for the attentions of her cold and distant father, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris). That's easy enough to get across. But this isn't just some run-of-the-mill detached father who can't be bothered to pay attention to his child. This is a detached father who can't be bothered to pay attention to his child because he's too busy obsessively eating cheese with his rich friends.

That's right. And this cheese habit pervades the entire town - after all, the town's name is Cheesebridge - and motivates people into action the way nothing else can. At the opening of the film, the odious Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley, in an uncommonly good voice performance) informs Lord Portley-Rind (the town's most powerful figure) that a child has been snatched by the mysterious, underground-dwelling boxtrolls. He brushes off the news and goes about his business. But when Snatcher insists that the boxtrolls are after the town's cheese? Why, then he feels the need to spring into action. A curfew is levied across Cheesebridge; boxtrolls are hunted like animals. The powers that be will stop at nothing to protect their cheese.

It gets curiouser. The town's governing body is made up of four wealthy and powerful men, whose council meetings are made up almost entirely of cheese-tasting. Periodically one of them will bring up an ordinance that needs to be addressed, or an important issue of some sort. But they never get around to discussing it or voting on anything - the pile of exotic cheeses in front of them is always too much to resist. Hammering home the joke, at an elaborate town gala midway through the film, Lord Portley-Rind ever-so-proudly announces that he and his cohorts have decided to hold off on a vital education bill for Cheesebridge citizens; instead, they boast, they've spent the funds on a gigantic wheel of Brie for all to enjoy. (Portley-Rind is positively beaming at the announcement. He might as well have a "Mission Accomplished" banner draped behind him.)

It's all so gloriously absurd, but it feels as though there's something preventing it from fully being the satire it wants to be. It makes such a caricature of politicians and power structures that the plotting itself, which breaks down those structures, almost can't do it justice. Even the town's social hierarchy is a stroke of absurdist genius. The aforementioned members of the town council are known as the White Hats - they wear fancy white hats, you see - while the working classes are the Red Hats (whose headwear is invariably dingy and soot-smeared). The simple act of wearing the hat seems to signify belonging - the council members have no other claim to power.

Snatcher, the local exterminator, is a Red Hat - but he longs for acceptance into the corner of high society that has never done anything but mock him. The biggest problem? Snatcher is violently allergic to cheese, and yet he refuses to admit that fact, regularly consuming cheese just to show he belongs. Even though his face blows up like a balloon after a single cheesy morsel.

There are so many levels of parody going on here, the central storyline almost can't help but be a bit less interesting by comparison. But it has its merits, too. It involves the infamous "Trubshaw Baby," who - as the story goes - was stolen from his crib by the evil boxtrolls many years ago, permanently instilling fear in the hearts of all Cheesebridge residents, who no longer dare to go out at night as a result. Snatcher - as part of his arrangement with Portley-Rind - has been trying to exterminate the boxtrolls for years, on the promise that he can join the White Hats once the deed is done.

Meanwhile, the Trubshaw Baby is alive and well and being raised by the rather sweet, innocent and eccentric boxtrolls who scour the streets at night in search of gadgets and knick-knacks, which they put to use in any number of creatively useful inventions in their underground home. Equipped with collapsible bodies, they walk around wearing cardboard boxes from which they get their names - Fish, Shoe, Wheel, Oil Can. The baby - now an adolescent boy who believe he's a true boxtroll* - is known as Eggs.

* At one point it's finally pointed out to him that he's actually a human. Exhibit A is that he speaks perfect English - not the half-gibberish of his fellow boxtrolls. His excuse? "I have a speech impediment!" When it's pointed out that he is the only one among them who can't collapse into his cardboard box, he insists, "I'm just long-boned."

With the assistance of Winnie - who's at first rather disappointed to discover that the boxtrolls aren't the vicious, bloodthirsty beasts she's heard stories about her entire childhood - Eggs is the key to the film's goal to reconcile (however it can) the world of the humans above and that of the creatures below. Here, again, directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi pull this off better visually than in the script they're working from. The meek boxtrolls are designed as grotesques, and as such they reflect the monstrousness of the actual human villains (particularly Snatcher, but also Portley-Rind, and the town's ruling class as a whole). But then the movie has to tell us in its dialogue, "No, the people are the real monsters!" But this is just a statement of the obvious. Visually, we already get it. Writers Irena Brignull and Adam Pava sometimes strain to tell us what the lesson is supposed to be, when in fact the absurdity of everything that surrounds the story always makes it perfectly clear.

And oh, what absurdity it is. This is a world in which the only prominent adult female character is actually a man in disguise - a fact no one seems to notice or acknowledge even when it's pointed out to them. It is a world of crooked faces, gnarled teeth, twisted cobblestone streets and elaborate, mechanized contraptions, all in service of a neo-Dickensian fable, by way of steampunk, by way of Nick Park, by way of Tim Burton. The Boxtrolls is the third feature from the great stop-motion animation house Laika Entertainment, following the lovely Coraline and the magnificent ParaNorman. This one doesn't quite reach the heights of that last effort, if only because it seems too eager to spell out, and rush into, its thematic touchstones, foregoing some of the cinematic and emotional maturity that made everything in ParaNorman lock into place so perfectly.

But it's probably unfair of me to compare it to that movie. The Boxtrolls is its own beast, and in most ways it's quite a good one - an exquisitely designed visual marvel (unsurprisingly), and a sweet tale of acceptance and societal redemption that fits snugly within the Laika oeuvre. Whatever the film's flaws, it nonetheless continues to prove that anything Laika does demands our utmost attention.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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