Children’s films are generally pretty darn benign, with little tension and few intense visual effects or scenes. Yeah, sure, the hero’s in peril from the monster or bad guy, but most children’s films take the Disney way out of 95% sweet, fun, light and 5% tension. Don’t want to scare the kiddies, after all. Except drama is all about tensions, and great storytelling is all about the protagonist being threatened and having to figure out how to overcome.
A few years ago, the stop-motion animated feature Coraline offered just such a dark vision, a compelling and visually inventive story from the splendid Neil Gaiman about a girl whose parents were more interested in their work than her, so she explores their new home and finds a mirror world where those parents pay lots of attention to her. I was blown away by Coraline when I first saw it and the animators awareness of the audience offers up some really splendid scenes. ParaNorman came next from the production company and I was far less taken by that story about a boy fighting ghosts, zombies and grown-ups to save his town.
The BoxTrolls is the third film from this production team, another stop-motion animation film, and it’s utterly delightful. There’s a wonderful steampunk feel running through the entire story and it’s not only another dark and creepy film, but there’s tons of funny and self-aware dialog, even scenes where the characters make a comment then look at you, the audience, to see if you got the joke or the sight gag. And then there’s the surprisingly metaphysical sequence slipped into the closing titles that had everyone at the screening laughing appreciatively.
The BoxTrolls are a group of subterranean creatures who live in salvaged boxes and take their names from whatever’s on the box front. At the beginning of the film, they scamper out of the Victorian-esque cobblestoned town of Cheesebridge with a human baby, an incident that creates fear and tension between the villagers and the trolls. The Trubshaw Baby, as it’s known, grows up amongst the BoxTrolls, believing it too is a BoxTroll named “Eggs” (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright)..
Meanwhile, in the village, the wealthiest are denoted by the white hats they wear, and the poshest of them is the mayor, Lord Portly-Rind (voice of Jared Harris). The evil Archibald Snatcher (delightfully voiced by Ben Kingsley) yearns for the day he can trade in his red hat for one of the white hats and join the elite in their secret cheese tasting club, even though he’s horribly allergic to cheese. His henchmen are the crazy Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan), the clumsy Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade) and the surprisingly thoughtful Mr. Trout (Nick Frost).
Snatcher convinces Lord Portly-Rind that if he eliminates every single BoxTroll that he’ll have earned a white hat and membership in The Club, but he has a dastardly plan up his sleeve, one that only Eggs and Lord Portly-Rind’s spunky daughter Winnie (Ella Fanning) can foil, with a little bit of help from Fish (Dee Bradley Baker), Eggs’ father figure in the BoxTrolls world.
Everything in The BoxTrolls is over-the-top, woven with a huge dose of whimsy and silliness, mixed with a solid cinematic sense that creates a quite innovative film that’s likely more fun for adults than children, though I’m sure children who can handle dark humor will adore the pace and constant jokes, along with the distinctive visual style.
Having said all of that, I’ll also share that the accents of some of the main characters are a bit difficult to understand and I found that it took 10-15 minutes to really draw me into the movie. There’s also no explanation at the beginning of what’s going on, so you’re left to puzzle it out for yourself as things quickly unfold.
There’s a curious fatherhood theme that runs throughout the movie that might come from the source book Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow. Winnie’s mother is barely a presence at all while it’s Winnie’s relationship with her blundering, self-important father (one reminiscent of the father/daughter relationship in Coraline) that’s front and center. And then there’s Eggs and his relationship with his long-thought-dead inventor father Herbert Trubshaw (Simon Pegg).
In one scene Winnie explains to Eggs that fathers are always there, always ready to listen, always ready to protect you from frightening things, then admits shamefacedly that her dad isn’t like that at all. There is redemption at the end for both fathers, but it’s a curious facet of a film that otherwise seems to have a lot more to say about class, elitism, and acceptance of people who are different.
And the anti-class current is deep and fast-moving in The BoxTrolls, to hilarious, if occasionally cringe-worthy effect. Late in the film, Lord Portly-Rind proudly announces that they’ve raised enough money to build a children’s hospital but then tells the unsurprised villagers that instead of that silly hospital, he’s commissioned a massive cheese wheel! When that is lost (in yet another terrific visual sequence) he laments “we might as well have made that silly hospital after all!”. It’s a very British anti-upperclass sensibility.
Still, for all these concerns, I really loved The BoxTrolls and would be happy to watch it again in the theater. It’s the most complex stop-motion animated film every released — 79 sets, over 20,000 handmade props and a ballroom scene that had 150 individual characters — and its dark, wry, snarky and steampunk sensibility makes it an absolute winner in my book. And stick around for the closing titles, featuring a riotous song by Eric Idle (of Monty Python fame) and some very neat closing animations. I say check it out, even if you don’t have kids.
Caveat: If you have younger children, I expect they’ll have some difficulties with the accents and some of the darker and more intense scenes. I’m not sure my 10yo would enjoy it in the theater, just as a reference point.