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The Boxtrolls

Reviewed by Cat Lester.

Director Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi
Length 97 mins
Certificate PG
Rating ******----
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 3

Photo from the article The Boxtrolls is the latest offering from LAIKA, the stop-motion animation studio which previously brought us Coraline (Selick, 2009) and ParaNorman (Buck and Fell, 2012). The eponymous boxtrolls are cardboard box-wearing creatures that live in underground caverns beneath the fictional town of Cheesebridge, and take their names from whatever were the original contents of their box - whether Fish, Shoe, or Fragile. The boxtrolls are thought to be fearsome, baby-snatching monsters and are hunted down by a group of exterminators known as Red Hats (led by Ben Kingsley’s Archibald Snatcher) who hope that their efforts will impress a group of well-to-do noblemen, the White Hats. The boxtrolls, of course, are revealed to be harmless, cowardly, and rather cute. Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a human child who has been raised by the boxtrolls, begins to unravel the truth about his past and seeks to correct the reputation of the boxtrolls and save them from extermination.

Unlike Coraline and ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls is the first feature from LAIKA which cannot be comfortably categorised as being a ‘children’s horror film’; Coraline is an unsettling domestic gothic story with its roots firmly in fairy tale tradition, while ParaNorman is a straight-up zombie film for kids, laden with nostalgia for retro 1970s and ‘80s B-movie horror and family adventure fare from the Scooby Doo cartoons to The Goonies. While The Boxtrolls may not intend to be scary, it nonetheless dabbles in themes of the grotesque; the strange; and the monstrous. Specifically, the film questions what it means to be a ‘monster’, presenting us with various options: the child-like boxtrolls themselves, who may certainly look like monsters, but do not act it? The nefarious Red Hats who seek to destroy the boxtrolls for their own personal gain? Or Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), the pompous leader of the White Hats who seems to care more about fine cheeses then he does his own daughter, Winnie (Elle Fanning)? In presenting adults as more frightening and monstrous than anything a child could dream up in their worst nightmares, The Boxtrolls continues to explore themes present in both Coraline and ParaNorman while also closely resembling something from the weird and wonderful mind of Roald Dahl.

Sadly, despite an intriguing concept, The Boxtrolls as a whole never quite reaches the heights of the works of Dahl, Coraline or ParaNorman. It is hampered by an underwhelming script which begins well, but gradually loses steam until its anticlimactic end. Furthermore, although the question of what makes a ‘true’ monster is an intriguing one, the idea is not developed in a way that is fully satisfying; some of these potentially monstrous characters seem to get off rather lightly, while the film’s answer to this question can be considered troubling in terms of the ideology it presents, particularly in terms of class.

Still, as one would expect from LAIKA, one of the film’s greatest strengths is that the visuals are often stunning. Like the boxtrolls themselves, the film’s aesthetic is both grotesque and endearing, the animation and attention to detail so impressive that the film is somehow beautiful in its carefully constructed ugliness. The film also has small moments of brilliance - the best scenes include a touching musical montage which shows Eggs growing up with the boxtrolls from infancy to adolescence, an amusing set-piece involving an extreme allergic reaction to cheddar, and a very existential post-credits sequence. While not LAIKA’s best, The Boxtrolls is nonetheless a worthwhile watch for fans of the studio, stop-motion animation, and fine cheeses.

This review was published on September 24, 2014.

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