Posted September 27, 2014 by Daniel Hodgson in
Where you are in society does not determine who you are as a person. That is the message of The Boxtrolls, the latest stop-motion animation film from Laika, the creators of Coraline and ParaNorman. While I couldn’t agree with its message about social identity, the film has a troubling subtext about social mobility.
The story follows “Eggs,” (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright), a human boy who was adopted as an infant by the Boxtrolls–sewer-dwelling creatures who scavenge the surface-world of 19th century England for scrap-parts and knick-knacks. They have pig noses, exaggerated overbites, pointy ears, and yellow, glowing eyes. They’re hideous creatures, and yet somehow, the film’s human characters are even uglier, if you can believe that. The backgrounds in the film are gorgeous, but otherwise, The Boxtrolls is an ugly, ugly movie, filled with ugly characters. If Coraline was a nightmare, Boxtrolls is a freak show.
The Boxtrolls themselves look, talk, and dress differently than the humans of the upper-world. They live isolated from society, in an underground ghetto. The creatures are feared, yet harmless—they curl up in their cardboard boxes like a turtle hiding in its shell at the first sign of trouble. An important detail is that many of them are exploited workers, kept hidden from society’s awareness. In other words, they’re immigrants.
Eggs, called so because of the picture of eggs on his box that he wears, watches helplessly as “Fish” (Dee Bradley Baker), his Boxtroll adoptive father, is abducted by Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), the city’s exterminator, who deals with the Boxtrolls like common vermin. Eggs follows Snatcher, and discovers what’s happened to the Boxtrolls—and his true identity.
The story comes down to Eggs’s voyage into human society, where he must convince Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), a local “White Hat” administrator, that the Boxtrolls are not a threat. Eggs is aided by Winnie (Ellie Fanning), Lord Portley-Rind’s daughter, who instructs Eggs—who has zero experience in human culture—on how one conducts oneself in high society. The lesson lasts a paltry 60 seconds. Needless to say, it’s a train wreck of a good scene.
Of course, liberating the Boxtrolls entails exposing Snatcher, a social-climber who wants to become a White-Hat himself, and lounge about like Lord Portley-Ring and his cronies, who spend their evenings eating fine cheese in his stately home. The problem here is that The Boxtrolls equates social climbing with villainy. No, you’re not the clothes you wear, the car you drive, or the job you work, but there is nothing wrong with wanting a better car, a better job, and a nicer home. You do not have to accept your place.
There are touches of humor, and the animation is fairly smooth, but in terms of story and message, The Boxtrolls is a disappointing follow-up to ParaNorman, which similarly dealt with misunderstood creatures. Still, The Boxtrolls is a high-quality production, and I appreciate that the studio, like Aardman animation, puts the effort into making this kind of animation, in a time when the art-form is dominated by CGI. The voice acting is top-notch, especially Ben Kingsley as the film’s villain, and while it lacks the enchanting, nightmarish quality of Coraline, and the gentle soul of ParaNorman, it retains the imagination of both films. It’s not without merit, but I can’t quite recommend it. Two stars.