Thursday, October 2, 2014

Movie Review: The Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls
Directed by: Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi.
Written by: Irena Brignull & Adam Pava based on the novel by Alan Snow.
Starring: Ben Kingsley (Archibald Snatcher), Isaac Hempstead Wright (Eggs), Elle Fanning (Winnie), Jared Harris (Lord Portley-Rind), Nick Frost (Mr. Trout), Richard Ayoade (Mr. Pickles), Tracy Morgan (Mr. Gristle), Dee Bradley Baker (Fish / Wheels / Bucket), Steve Blum (Shoe / Sparky), Nika Futterman (Oil Can / Knickers), Pat Fraley (Fragile / Sweets), Fred Tatasciore (Clocks / Specs), Max Mitchell (Baby Eggs), Maurice LaMarche (Sir Langsdale), James Urbaniak (Sir Broderick / Male Workman 1 / Male Workman 2), Brian George (Boulanger / Male Aristocrat), Toni Collette (Lady Portley-Rind), Simon Pegg (Herbert Trubshaw).

The Boxtrolls is the type of children’s movie I have always responded to – even when I was a child. This is a dark movie – both visually and thematically – but it’s one that trusts that children can handle a certain degree of darkness in their stories. Most animated films being pitched at children are candy colored, fast moving crap – that appeals only to the lowest common denominator, and want to teach children the most basic of lessons about being nice to each other. The Boxtrolls is an altogether thornier movie, in that it addresses some real issues. The film is about a hierarchical society, that isn’t based on merit, but on wealth and privilege – and one where those in power keep that power with fear mongering and lies. Some have mentioned Hitler and Nazis in relation to The Boxtrolls – and the comparison is apt. This is a society in which all of society’s ills are blamed on a certain group that mob readily buys into demonizing, without ever questioning their actions. It also contains two men who are “just following orders” – but believe themselves to be the good guys at first, but as the movie goes along start to realize that they are acting more like the “bad guys”.

The story is about the city of Cheeseberg – which seems to exist in some 19th Century version of England. The town is run by the White Hats – a group of four men who make all the decisions for the town, but basically gorge themselves on cheese the entire time. When the film opens Archibald Snatcher (voiced, brilliantly, by Ben Kingsley) shows up on the doorstep of Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), the leader of the White Hates, and tells him that the much vilified “Boxtrolls”, who live under Cheeseberg, and subsist on their garbage – have stolen a child. Lord Portley-Rind doesn’t much care – but when Snatcher suggests that they could be coming after his cheese next, Portley-Rind snaps into action – and agrees to Snatcher’s terms. If he can exterminate all of the Boxtrolls, he’ll make him a Whitehat – which will allow Snatcher access to the cheese, despite the fact that he cannot eat cheese without becoming a swollen monstrosity. The main action of the movie is about Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) – the child who was “kidnapped” by the Boxtrolls, who is now 10, and doesn’t know he was a human and Winnie (Elle Fanning), Lord Portley-Rind’s oft ignored daughter – who slowly realizes everything she has been told in her life is a lie.

The film is a visual wonder. Made by Laika – the studio behind Coraline and ParaNorman, two other excellent, dark children’s movies – the movie is top motioned animated, and creates multiple great visual landscapes – none more so than the twisty, turny, garbage dump of a lair of the boxtrolls. The streets of Cheeseberg are as crooked as those in The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari. And the Portley-Rind’s house is one of extravagance and opulence. The character design is just as good – with the Boxtrolls a mixture of grotesque and cute, and the human characters looking slightly off-kilter. There is not a scene in this movie that isn’t a wonder to look at.

Of course, it all comes down to the writing, and for the most part, The Boxtrolls is smart, although the movie does give in to the action people expect in children’s movie at the end, which seems at odds with the rest of the movie.  The movie is dark – it isn’t really for younger children (it’s been a few months since there was an animated kids movie, so I considered taking my 3 year old to the movie, but decided to watch it solo first – and I’m glad I did, as I don’t think she could handle it). But for slightly older children, The Boxtrolls is one of the best animated films of the year. It trusts children to be able to handle some of the darker and more macabre elements that used to exist in children’s movies, but have pretty much been eliminated these days. Yes, the film basically ends on a much happier note than the rest of the movie would lead you to believe possible – but until that ending, I loved The Boxtrolls. In a time in which Pixar is somewhat flailing, Laika is making a base for itself as being the next best thing.

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