The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Boxtrolls

Written by Cat Lester.

Photo from the article The Boxtrolls is based on Alan Snow's 2005 children's novel Here Be Monsters!, which would have been an extremely apt title to retain for the film. Not that there is anything wrong with the film's title, but there indeed be many a monster in The Boxtrolls. What I wish to discuss in this Alternate Take are the varying types of monstrosity that the film presents, and the potential problems that arise from these presentations, particularly in terms of class and gender.

As mentioned in my short review of the film, The Boxtrolls presents human adults as far more monstrous than any type of non-human being, and takes a sympathetic attitude towards those who may be unfairly maligned as 'monsters' because of the way they look. The former point is not a new avenue of exploration in children's stories by any means, as it can easily be traced at least as far back as fairy tales, populated as they often are with wicked (step)mothers and ineffectual fathers. As Maria Tatar astutely writes in one of her many books on fairy tales, Off With Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood (1992), parents can be considered 'the real ogres in a child's life'. Sympathy towards misunderstood 'monsters' is also a common theme in children's media - possibly because childhood and adolescence can be generally frustrating and confusing experiences during which one might desperately strive to be independent, to be older, to be understood by adults. Might there be something very appealing to a child about the (perceived) freedom posed by monsters? Vampires and zombies, after all, do not have to go to school, do homework, or tidy their rooms. Children may also be able to relate to monsters due to the 'monstrous' aspects of their own constantly growing and changing bodies - whether becoming taller, losing baby teeth, secreting strange liquids, or finding hair growing in new, unexpected places. Like the Wolfman, the body of a child or teen can often feel very out of control.

The Boxtrolls is the third feature from LAIKA, and in all three of their features to date they have at least touched upon these themes of malevolent adults and misunderstood children. Their first feature, Coraline (2009), shows us the perils of wishful thinking, in which the eponymous protagonist is frustrated and bored with her own parents and home. She then finds herself in a parallel world containing uncanny doppelgangers of her own parents who shower her with love, attention, and presents. It isn't too long before Coraline begins to see that this Other world is too good to be true, and is in fact a trap constructed by the monstrous Other Mother who seeks to consume her soul. Coraline, of course, realises that perhaps her real parents weren't so bad after all. LAIKA's follow-up, ParaNorman (2012), concerns misunderstood children with a potentially monstrous ability - the power to see and speak to the dead - that we have seen utilised in the 'creepy children' sub-genre of horror. However, it is clearly apparent that it is not these children who are truly monstrous, but the adults who do the misunderstanding. The film's adult characters further challenge our conception of the monstrous: at first, the obvious monsters are the puritanical zombies who rise from the dead and chase our child protagonists, until this is comically flipped on its head and the zombies become bemused and terrified by modern society. They then become victims themselves when the modern townspeople form a mob and attempt to run them down with flaming torches and pitchforks. The threat of the 'normal' adults as greater than the zombies is brilliantly referenced in the film when the delinquent teenager Alvin screams when he thinks he is being chased by zombies, but screams even louder when he realises he is in fact being chased by the angry mob of adults. For certain children, the prospect of being grounded for misbehaving is a fate worse than death.

When we consider LAIKA as a studio it is not at all surprising that they seem to have a penchant for the misunderstood and the marginalised. As a studio which produces feature films in only stop-motion animation, they are not exactly abiding by the 'norm'. Animation is itself often overshadowed by live-action, the perceived 'norm' of Hollywood filmmaking. Stop-motion animation is then further marginalised due to having been largely overshadowed by more popular forms of animation throughout its history: hand-drawn cel animation throughout the twentieth century, and computer generated (CG) animation in the twenty-first. In comparison to both of these, particularly CG animation which is costly, technologically advanced and retains a 'slick' aesthetic, stop-motion has a 'rougher' home-made quality. While this is charming in its own right, it can be seen as cumbersome in production terms due to the need to painstakingly move models bit-by-bit by hand and photograph them twenty-four times for every second of footage needed. Furthermore, as displayed by The Lego Movie (2014), CG animation now seems to be able to perfectly mimic the aesthetic of stop-motion. One might then question why LAIKA even bothers with its rather antiquated method. (I hasten to point out that LAIKA does use some 'advanced' technology in their filmmaking, including the use of 3-D printers to create their models, and CG special effects to fill in where stop-motion falls short. However, these can be seen as enhancements or aids rather than betrayals of the stop-motion method.) The answer is that there is arguably something fantastically tangible about stop-motion animation that is still unmatched by CG, and in knowing the physical effort that has gone into it. Stop-motion is also remarkably suited to the subject matter of the films of LAIKA and another leading purveyor of stop-motion, Tim Burton. All of their films deal in some way with subject matter of the gothic or the horrific, several of which concern the resurrection of the dead: Burton's Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012), and LAIKA's ParaNorman. In a similar fashion, the very process of stop-motion results in the giving of "life" and movement to inanimate objects that would otherwise be "lifeless". Considering LAIKA in this way reveals that it is clear that they have no intention of doing anything "normally", as each of their films seem to just get weirder - both narratively and aesthetically. Although their last two films have been distributed by Universal and their CEO, Travis Knight, is the son of the founder of Nike, they are a private company and have literally situated themselves outside of the mainstream of Hollywood by basing themselves in Portland, Oregon - the United States' self-professed capital of weirdness. That LAIKA has a penchant for the "abnormal" has become part of their brand and is clearly seen as a point of pride for them, as evidenced by a description of the studio in The Art of ParaNorman (2012) as 'a bubbling crucible of every kind of abnormally talented dork, nerd, freak, and geek you could ever have the good fortune to meet'. The tagline for ParaNorman says it all: 'You don't become a hero by being normal.'

It is therefore no surprise that with The Boxtrolls LAIKA continue to show sympathy and solidarity for those who are marginalised by society - whether freaks, geeks, children who can see the dead, or harmless trolls who live under the ground. If stop-motion animation can be considered a "quirky" and under-appreciated art form in the shadow of CG behemoths, we might liken stop-motion filmmakers like LAIKA to the boxtrolls themselves, who recycle and give new life to the unwanted leftovers of the residents of Cheesebridge by producing inventive contraptions. The boxtrolls are the first of many different types of "monster" we are presented, and the ones who are, for the reasons outlined above, given the most sympathetic treatment by the film. Despite it becoming clear very early on that they are actually very sweet and benign, they are first presented as evil, as the film implies that they have stolen a baby - the future human-boxtroll hybrid, and the film's protagonist, Eggs. The boxtrolls do indeed look like monsters, in that they are inhuman, do not look like any known animal of the Earth, and are rather ugly. However, there's also something about the apparent monstrosity of the boxtrolls that is endearing, even quite adorable, and suggests that they are far tamer than is initially implied. Interestingly, in an interview with Little White Lies, Travis Knight and the film's co-directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi explain that designing the boxtrolls required a balancing act of 'cuteness', i.e. making them seem cute enough to not be scary without going so far that they become like Despicable Me's minions, thus making it implausible that they would ever be mistaken for monsters, as they are by the residents of Cheesebridge. The filmmakers have clearly succeeded with flying colours - I probably wouldn't want to hug a boxtroll, but gladly cheer them on as they hop around in their battered boxes that they use as clothes and chatter in their gibberish language. In what I think is a particularly nice touch, their skin seems to be darker around their eyes, which alludes to their status as petty thieves as well as associating them with another cute but mischievous and often maligned creature, the raccoon.

Of course, the whole point is that the boxtrolls are not the real monsters of The Boxtrolls. At this point I would like to introduce a particularly poignant definition of monsters from Neil Gaiman's novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013):

Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren't.

I find this highly applicable to the varying types of monsters to be found in The Boxtrolls; just the first sentence, 'Monsters come in all shapes and sizes' is applicable to the multi-shaped boxtrolls themselves. Noël Carroll, in his book The Philosophy of Horror (1990), offers another definition of monsters as being associated with 'filth, decay, deterioration, slime and so on', and while this also might be applicable to the scrungy-looking boxtrolls, there is clearly more to being a monster than the way one looks. Monstrosity depends as much on behaviour as it does on appearance, as implied by the adage, 'Knowledge is knowing Frankenstein is not the monster. Wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein is the monster.' Although the boxtrolls are quickly revealed to be benign, even quite cowardly creatures, they are mistakenly thought to behave monstrously because of their reputation in Cheesebridge as being thieves and baby snatchers. This brings me to one of the first "real" monsters of The Boxtrolls - the film's villain, Archibald Snatcher.

As the hunter and exterminator of the boxtrolls, Snatcher's monstrous nature is clear from the very beginning, and does not let up until his grisly demise. Having agreed to exterminate the boxtrolls, he roams the streets warning the townspeople to hide their valuables. This includes children, which he refers to as 'tender and delicious babies', spoken with delightfully horrid relish by an unrecognisable Ben Kingsley, who gives arguably the best vocal performance of any film in years. This particularly grotesque line reading associates him firmly in a tradition of infanticidal fairy tale ogres, witches, and giants. While Snatcher does not literally eat any children in the film, his monstrosity comes from his reprehensible behaviour, namely his using beings smaller and weaker than himself - which applies to both children and the boxtrolls - for his own personal gain. Unlike his sidekick goons who believe they are fighting on the side of good, but gradually realise throughout the course of the film that they are not, Snatcher knows full well that what he is doing is bad as it was he who defamed the boxtrolls by spreading the lie that they stole, rather than rescued baby eggs, otherwise known as the Trubshaw Baby. (Furthermore, the boxtrolls rescued the baby because Snatcher was threatening its father.) He then uses this as a foundation for his plan to exterminate the boxtrolls and thus be initiated into the White Hats: effectively Cheesebridge's version of the 1%, the White Hats are an elite group of upper class men who seem to be in charge of how the town is run. However, they do very little aside from get together in their exclusionary social club, eat fine cheeses, and leer boorishly over the body of Madame Frou Frou as if she is one such delectable cheese they would like to devour. An ambitious but misguided and frustrated man who cannot break out of the lower class, Snatcher desires nothing more than to be welcomed into their ranks and to have his own red hat (signifying his lowly status) replaced by a white one.

To the audience the White Hats do not seem like an especially desirable bunch, whose own monstrosities I will address in further detail shortly. Thus, Snatcher's desire to become one of them makes him all the more monstrous. This takes on a literal meaning during one of the film's best and most memorable scenes. Snatcher, believing that it won't be long before he is finally made a White Hat, re-enacts their cheese-eating meetings in a derelict warehouse with his goons. Some of the film's best comedy comes from the small details of Snatcher's pathetic attempts to behave as an upper class gentleman, something that is clearly not in his nature: above all, the way that he has constructed his own white hats out of paper which sit comically askew on the heads of himself and his goons. It is then when Snatcher actually tries to eat cheese that he goes from just behaving like a monster to looking like one. It should be said that even in his "normal" form Snatcher does have an air of the monstrous about him: his grey, sallow skin, yellowing crooked teeth, and greasy-looking hair that hangs down like rat tails. But Snatcher is also extremely lactose intolerant, and eating just one crumb of cheese has a Jekyll and Hyde effect on him: he breaks out in what can only described as a very extreme form of hives which can only be cured by having a vat of leaches suck the noxious allergens from his skin. Regardless of this undesirable side-effect that cheese has on him, Snatcher nonetheless continues to strive to be a White Hat and eat cheese with them. It is this that leads to his downfall, as during the film's climax he falls into a giant wheel of brie, making him more physically monstrous than ever before. This seems to give him a rage- and cheese-fuelled super strength, forcing the White Hats to finally let him join them at their table.

There is no doubt that what Snatcher does to the boxtrolls is reprehensible. In addition to the actions outlined above, he uses the kidnapped boxtrolls as slaves to build a machine which he later uses to completely destroy the boxtrolls' home and, finally, attempt to kill them and Eggs. What I do not intend to do here is to excuse his behaviour. However, what I do think is worth questioning, and what problematizes his depiction as a monster, is why Snatcher believes he must do these things, despite the fact that the prize for his accomplishments chiefly involves eating something that he is biologically incapable of ingesting, and even results in his death. This brings me to the aforementioned White Hats whom Snatcher desperately desires to join.

As described above, the White Hats are a small, exclusive club of upper class, middle-aged to elderly "gentlemen" who seem to be the rulers of Cheesebridge. Being a White Hat, explains the leader Lord Portley-Rind, is an honour which indicates 'privilege, prestige, position!' That the colour of their hats (and skin) is white adds an extra dimension of discomfort to their 'privileged' status. However, rather than being pure white, their hats are a grubby off-white colour, hinting towards the rotten core of their elitist boys' club. Snatcher might be the one who acts the most overtly monstrous and despicable, but the White Hats are indirect in their monstrosity. When they hear word that the boxtrolls are (allegedly) stealing babies they take a very blasé attitude and claim that they would rather deal with it the next morning. That is, until they hear that their precious cheese is also vulnerable, which spurs them to take immediate action. Moreover, while Snatcher is the one actually doing monstrous things, he is doing it all at the bidding of the White Hats under the belief that, if he pleases them by exterminating all of the boxtrolls, he will be welcomed into their ranks. What becomes very clear, however, is that they are exploiting this desire in Snatcher for their own gain, and do not intend to make him a White Hat at all. They cruelly taunt him, dangling the symbol of the white hat in front of his nose like a donkey chasing a carrot on a stick, never to actually let him have his prize. The White Hats claim that to become one of them you simply have to earn it: 'With valour!' says one. 'Chivalry!' says another. 'Or being rich!' finishes a third. With wealth as the punchline of the joke, the implication seems to be that the former two of these options are nice ideas in theory, but the third is the only really viable way to become a member of the club. The White Hats reminded me very much of an elitist club of brutish, rich men in another 2014 film: Lone Scherfig's Riot Club. They might be identical but for the ages of the members and that the Riot Club are perfectly open about the criteria for selection, which includes having been to one of the UK's five most elite boarding schools. Now, it is important to point out that even if chivalry or valour were to get one accepted into the White Hats without wealth, Snatcher doesn't seem to have at least tried these more honourable options before turning to less respectable ones. But if the easiest way to truly be accepted as a White Hat is to become rich, then Snatcher is clearly not capable of this, and the class system of Cheesebridge seems to deny any form of upward social mobility as long as the White Hats are in charge. Thus, Snatcher resorts to the desperate measures of framing the boxtrolls as monsters and then agreeing to exterminate them in order to get the attention and approval of the White Hats.

In the end, the film ultimately attempts to avoid a completely problematic painting of Snatcher and the White Hats by emphasising the importance of overcoming one's 'nature'. At a pivotal moment in the film, Snatcher gloats to Eggs that the boxtrolls do not have it in their nature to be brave and to save themselves from being killed. But, after some inspiring words from Eggs, the boxtrolls prove Snatcher wrong, and they do change their nature. Lord Portley-Rind is also shown capable of change: early in the film he ignores his daughter Winnie, who is in danger of being taken by boxtrolls, in favour of eating cheese, but in the climax he 'changes his nature' by sacrificing his white hat in order to save her life. The film closes with father and daughter happily united with not a white (or red) hat to be seen. Snatcher could potentially have changed his nature in an attempt to gain acceptance into the White Hats through good deeds rather than dastardly ones - although, as I have suggested above, I think that even this would not have succeeded. But Snatcher's tragic flaw is not his inability to change his mental nature, but his inability to accept the limitations posed by his physical nature. Despite having a severe cheese allergy, he sees cheese-eating as the defining characteristic of the White Hats, and thus keeps eating it regardless of the danger it presents to his health. In focusing on trying to force his physical body to do things it cannot, rather than attempting to change his goals, his outlook and his actions, he destroys himself in a massive cheese-induced explosion.

As I have said, I think that Snatcher would have been prevented from becoming a White Hat regardless of whether he tried to change his mental nature or not, as the club seems to be entirely dependent on one's class, privilege and wealth. Therefore, for me, the film's handling of class remains troubling and somewhat contradictory. The only way for Snatcher to truly be on the same level as the White Hats is for the entire class system to be dismantled, as it is at the end of the film - but this still depends on the monstrous exploitation and destruction of Snatcher, a man of the lower class, for it to be possible. Snatcher and the White Hats are therefore both equally monstrous in different ways, but where the former is gruesomely punished for it, the latter are not punished at all. Rather, the film's emotional resolution depends on not their punishment but the very opposite: the reinstating and upholding of these patriarchal figures. To return to the Gaiman quote about types of monsters, the White Hats can be seen as fitting into the category of 'things people should be scared of, but they aren't'.

The film's valorising of patriarchal figures is problematic not only in terms of class, but also gender. I am not referring to just Lord Portley-Rind and the other White Hats, but also the father of Eggs, the eccentric Herbert Trubshaw. Eggs believed his father to be dead, but he had in fact been imprisoned by Snatcher for years and, like the boxtrolls, exploited for his skills as an inventor. Thus, at the end of the film Eggs and Herbert are happily reunited. At the risk of making myself seem a monster, I was not left untouched by this, especially given that Eggs does not turn his back on his adopted boxtrolls family, including his surrogate boxtroll parent, Fish. Eggs' human family and his boxtroll family are joined, which is reflective of the teaser trailer's inclusive tagline, 'Families come in all shapes and sizes - even rectangles'. However, the place of women, particularly mothers, is suspiciously absent in this dynamic. It is a common fairy tale trope for mothers to be dead, hence their replacement by a wicked stepmother. Eggs' mother is never referred to at all, so it seems reasonable to expect that she went the way of many fairy tale mothers before her. But what of Winnie's mother, the wife of Lord Portley-Rind? She is not dead, but has an incongruous appearance in one scene mid-way through the film. She has absolutely no impact in the film, and even more strangely, Winnie herself seems to forget that her mother exists. In a scene in which Winnie has to explain to Eggs what a father is, him not being familiar with human familial structures, she says that a father is 'the one who raises you… looks after you. Loves you.' This is a fine explanation but for the fact that it completely forgets the role of the mother. This would be acceptable if Winnie's mother were absent, and if she had only ever known the experience of having one parent, but her mother is very much alive and well. Winnie's main goal throughout the film is to get her father to care about her. One might hope that, in the absence of the affections of one parent, Winnie might turn to the other for comfort. Rather, Winnie and her mother both seem quite indifferent to each other. Mother-daughter feuds are well known, but one might think that the mother would be concerned about the fact that her husband cares more about cheese than the well-being of their daughter. And if the mother does not care for Winnie, then why does Winnie not vie for the affections of both of them? Sadly, after her one scene the mother is completely forgotten, even though she lurks in the background of the final scene in which Winnie and Lord Portley-Rind are happily united as father and daughter. Adding further insult to injury is that the mother is voiced by none other than the magnificent Toni Collette, and yet the film completely wastes her talent by giving her next to nothing to do. Even Tracy Morgan, whose character just makes a series of animalistic noises throughout the film, is a more memorable presence.

The poor treatment of mothers as an afterthought in the film can be extended to the representation of female characters in the film as a whole. Aside from Winnie and her mother, the only other "female" character of any note is Madame Frou Frou, who actually turns out to be Snatcher in drag - a revelation that causes great disgust in the White Hats. Winnie, it should be said, is a great character. She is obsessed with the boxtrolls to the point that rather than being scared of them, she seems to want to be kidnapped so that she might see them and their monstrousness in the flesh. But the almost complete erasure of women might suggest that, among all the differing types of monsters in the film, women are the most "monstrous" of all. This is all the more disappointing given the aforementioned teaser trailer which implies a very progressive outlook upon gender and sexuality in the family unit. The narration tells us, 'Sometimes there's a mother. Sometimes there's a father. Sometimes there's a father and a father. Sometimes both fathers are mothers.' In the film, this acceptance of non-traditional family structures comes in the form of Eggs and his adopted boxtroll family, but sadly the trailer's inclusiveness of women and other non-patriarchal figures does not extend to the final product.

The tagline for The Boxtrolls is 'Dare to be square', emphasising LAIKA's attempts to distance themselves from the "norm" of the Hollywood studio system. Unfortunately, it is the regressive treatment, or rather absence, of women in The Boxtrolls which aligns them quite closely with a majority of mainstream cinema. It also might be quite revealing of the demographics of the studio's work-force. In a telling comment regarding the genders of the film's creators, CEO Travis Knight has said in reference to the film's emotional core, 'we're all the fathers of young children, and there was something about the story of absentee fathers that really resonated with us as a very personal thing that we could examine from our own personal experiences.' There is, of course, nothing wrong with telling stories about men and fathers. These are perfectly valid stories when they are told well, as long as these are balanced with stories about other types of people. It just seems sad to me for a film (and studio) that takes such effort to be inclusive of people outside of the norm ultimately ends up celebrating those who are the very representations of it. I would also like to hope that we have come further than treating women as secondary characters, especially given that in the year leading up to the release of The Boxtrolls Disney, a studio with a very turbulent history of the representation of women, made strides with both Frozen (2013) and Maleficent (2014). Each of those films, which had strong female creative forces in Jennifer Lee and Angelina Jolie, respectively, put a revisionist twist on the fairy tale, championing love and support between women over heterosexual romance. Even the mother in Disney's most recent fairy tale, the live-action retelling of Cinderella (2015), has more presence and a more meaningful relationship with her daughter in that film despite dying within the first few minutes. I only wish that in The Boxtrolls there had been even the tiniest hint of such female companionship between Winnie and her mother. And on that note, let me ask you: wouldn't you like to see a film in which Toni Collette and Elle Fanning team up as mother and daughter to rebel against the patriarchy? Because I certainly would.

This Alternate Take was published on April 23, 2015.

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