Movie Review: The Boxtrolls
Of the many different forms of animation available, one that is often the most awe-inspiring (but also the most time-consuming), is stop-motion.
Unlike the other styles that require pencils or pixels, stop-motion is fascinating because everything has to be created in three-dimensions. Figures, buildings, cars, plants, and many other things. But there is a major pain in the system. Each moving object has to be moved one frame at a time, and if you screw up…you have to go back to square one!
When it comes to Stop-Motion productions, almost no major studios want to sink lots of money into them. Most productions have come together for films like The Nightmare Before Christmas, or Frankenweenie, and then were disbanded.
…and then, there’s Laika. Located in Oregon, and founded by Phil Knight (founder and CEO of Nike, Inc), the studio first gained major attention in 2009, for the stop-motion production, Coraline. Though not a huge moneymaker by Hollywood’s standards, the studio proved it could tell a compelling story running a gamut of emotions, that one didn’t ordinarily see in animated features these days.
Their follow-up was the politically-incorrect horror/comedy, Paranorman. While not as profitable as Coraline, its message about bullying and daring to be different has earned it a small cult following since its release, and several of my friends talk very highly of it.
When it came to the company’s third release, it would be a film that was in development around the same time as Coraline. An adaptation of Alan Snow’s book, Here Be Monsters, which eventually became known as, The Boxtrolls.
After an infant is carried away by creatures known as boxtrolls in the town of Cheesebridge, a man named Snatcher calls upon the town’s head, Lord Portly Rind. Snatcher claims he can rid Cheesebridge of the boxtrolls, but asks in return, that he be made a member of the town’s governing board. Portly Rind agrees, but only on condition that Snatcher gets rid of all of them.
Over the next 10 years, Snatcher and his cronies attempt to capture all the boxtrolls. When one of them named Fish is caught, it us up to the baby-turned-boy-turned-boxtroll named Eggs, to try and rescue him.
The film’s boxtrolls could have just become stock one-line jokes in the same guise as Despicable Me’s minions, but the filmmakers manage to only focus on a select few, giving them their own personalities and cares. At times, they do sound like a cross between Gollum and Stitch, but there’s enough personality that I’m sure each person will come away liking various ones. Each boxtroll’s name comes from the item on its box, which helps us identify them in a fun way.
The lead character of the film is Eggs, who was the opening scene’s baby, now raised by the boxtrolls. Growing up, the little boy becomes enthralled by both music, as well as the clockwork mechanisms and doodads that the boxtrolls work away on in their hideaway under Cheesebridge. Eggs’ relationship with Fish is a short-but-sweet bit, and the minutes with them together helps build our emotions when Eggs’ surrogate is taken from him.
The one human that Eggs has the most interaction with is Portly Rind’s daughter, Winnie. Though seemingly a curly-haired moppet, she is not as proper as her station entails. Instead of dresses or dolls, Winnie’s fascination is with the horrible stories people have told of the boxtrolls for years, making her a fun diversion from the norm of young female leads.
Winnie is probably the only human who is really the most likable of the entire town. Often ignored by her father, Lord Rind almost becomes a little deplorable in how he often ignores the words of his own daughter, or even considers much use in helping the small town in regards to urgent matters. I’m sure many will draw parallels between Cheesebridge’s decision-makers, and others in our own world.
In animation, we are sometimes enthralled by a theatrical villain, and the directors have certainly created a beautiful monstrosity in the character of Snatcher. His personality is so enthralling, that I found it hard not to admire his crooked teeth, or the rolling of his spindly fingers. The actor who plays him does such an incredible job blending his voice to the character that I don’t even want to tell you who he is (trust me on this…it’s an amazing surprise!).
The central theme of the film is one of identity, regarding ‘who’ one is, and/or ‘what’ one is. Dreamworks’ Mr Peabody and Sherman also dabbled in this theme earlier this year, but it feels that Laika‘s people have managed to make it more central to their story, and not as much of a shoehorned afterthought as Peabody had. There’s also a subplot regarding ‘belonging,’ and the question of: ‘how far are you willing to go?’
The design of the film continues on with the wonderful artistry by those at Laika. The world feels real, and even as exaggerated as the characters are, we can’t help but buy into their misshapen, and sometimes awkwardly-styled visages. These are not slick, lazy CGI creations that some cheaper computer films churn out. The director’s mentioned a number of influences in their stylings, with names such as Terry Gilliam, Charles Dickens, and Jean Pierre-Juenet mentioned for inspiration.
One area where the film did falter a bit for me, was in the first 20 minutes. There’s quite a lot to digest in that time, and it’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle was scattered before our eyes a little too quickly. But what is most brilliant about how Laika functions as a studio, is that most of the time, they figure their audience is smart enough to solve the riddles laid before it. I will admit I solved some puzzles quicker than others, but there were still a few that made me do a double-take (which made the directors giddy when I told them which ones).
After it ended, I thought back of the different productions I had seen, and to me, The Boxtrolls feels very much like Aardman Animation’s film, Chicken Run. It’s not as deep as Laika’s previous productions, but it stays true to their daring to be different, while also tugging on your emotions in a way few films do.
While PIXAR Animation Studios has been a poster child for an outside studio doing huge business, it feels a shame that because they have not brought in hundreds of millions of dollars, Laika has been short-changed by the entertainment media.
One of Laika’s strengths as a studio, is they do not rely on test screenings, or have a group of studio executives mandating if something is too scary, or may offend. At a screening I attended (courtesy of Aintitcoolnews !), I asked directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi (pictured above, talking with some fans after the screening!), if there were any parts of the film they had to wrestle with to keep from being cut, and miraculously, there was no deal-making. What you see on the screen, is their vision! As well, they do not stuff their production with A-list actors. The voices they’ve chosen actually sound like they are coming from the characters, and by the end of the film, I was surprised how none of my voice guesses was correct!
The two directors credited CEO and Chairman Travis Knight (Phil’s son) with helping make sure that Laika was run as a place where filmmakers could make the films they wanted to see. It also helps that Travis is an animator himself (having worked for Will Vinton Studios, and even animating on Coraline and Paranorman!), and one can certainly sense that he is a man who wants to be sure that all the hoops that Hollywood make you jump through, have been removed. It definitely helps to have a CEO who has had the experience.
The Boxtrolls is a film that I encourage anyone who is a lover of animation, or of films that give your emotions a marathon sprint, to go see. Seriously folks, please give your encouragement and time to the folks at Laika. With many of us hoping for entertainment that bucks the safer animation that most big studios churn out nowadays, the studio is one of the last bastions of hope, carrying on film making on American shores, that reminds us of the days when children’s films felt no fear in making the kiddies squirm in their seats.
At Comic-Con this past summer, CEO Travis Knight did mention that he would love to have the company do a hand-drawn feature film. Given how they are outside the groups of Hollywood yes men, I’d love to see what they could accomplish, unfettered, and artistically inclined. Bring it on, Laika!