The Boxtrolls, very loosely based on the book Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow, is a movie made for an entirely different era and a wholly singular demo. It’s not a film created for today’s catered to and coddled kids. No, parents will be dealing with freaked out frightmares, thanks to this productions highly unusual character design.
The trolls themselves are unattractive little blobs with limited personality and a tendency to shriek at everything that happens. When they talk, their dialogue is virtually indiscernible and they tend to be unappealing in much of what they do.
Then there are the humans. Almost all have a sickly green glow about them, as if they are living amidst pockets of mold and mildew, or perhaps, an outbreak of plague. Almost everyone suffers from what The Simpsons would call The Big Book of British Smiles and the personalities vary from angry to awful.
In particular, the main villain, Archibald Snatcher, is a slimy, oily piece of wicked work, his stringy hair and exaggerated features like something out of a Charles Dickens’ graphic novel. He’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang‘s Child Catcher merged with a John Tenniel fever dream. Voiced by Ben Kingsley, Archibald Snatcher is the worst thing about the storyline, but the best thing about the creative element.
That leaves a whole lot of empty space for first time feature director Graham Annable and Open Season co-helmer Anthony Stacchi to fill, and what they bring to the mix is mediocre at best. There’s no joy in Boxtrolls, no sense of adventure or feeling of being whisked away to a special place or unique universe. Instead, everything feels leftover and discarded, like the film itself was made from the refuse the title characters paw through on their nightly “raids” of the locals.
Indeed, in the fictional town of Cheesebridge, once the sun starts setting, a curfew is enforced. Head of the ruling White Hats, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) knows that a safe populace is a supportive populace, and he will do anything to maintain his power — even enter into a shady deal with troll exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley). Seems, ten years before, a baby was “stolen” by these creatures, and since then, rumors of their desire for more infant vittles have come to obsess the region. Living in fear, Portley-Rind agrees to give Snatcher his own White Hat should, he succeed.
Of course, the legends aren’t true. The child wasn’t taken, he was given to the trolls for protection, and as he grows, he believes himself a member of the clan. He is named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), after the image on the cardboard “coat” he wears. One day, he runs into Lord Portley-Rind’s inquisitive and ambitious daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning), and she decides to set the citizenry straight about the whole “evil creatures” ideal.
Of course, Snatcher will have none of this, since he himself has a secret plot to overthrow the ruling party and save all the cheese for himself. Things come to a head when everyone finds out that the boxtrolls are benevolent, not bad.
As stated before, adults over the age of 40 might “get” The Boxtrolls. They comprise the audience that is used to family films “with an edge”, movies where serious things happen, things are sometimes scary, and artistic temperament trumps recognizable marketing and cinematic manipulation. Now, this may seem like a good thing, but The Boxtrolls doesn’t know how to successfully make such a statement.
Instead, it tries to be goofy (the main characters engage in a lot of stupid slapstick), before wildly careening over into borderline horror. Snatcher’s close-ups simply ooze terror and one can easily imagine small children weeping the minute he shows up on screen. Again, this may seem like a good thing, but it’s not. It might look cool, but as a character, he doesn’t work.
Why? Well, that’s the rub with The Boxtrolls. We never understand the motives. Snatcher wants a White Hat so he can be one of the elite. Unfortunately, the main benefit from such status is all the cheese you can eat, and he’s highly allergic. The film gets a lot of mileage out of showing Snatcher infected and bloated, his lips and face deformed and pulsating. As the camera gets closer, it’s like looking at the Elephant Man mixed with a crime scene… and this is supposed to be funny? Or fun? Even with Kingsley’s amazing voice work (you won’t recognize it’s him), this is a very unappealing character.
And, again, he’s the best thing about this movie. Eggs is ordinary and dull, a little bit of Winnie goes a very long way, the whole White Hat thing seems pointless, and character work from Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Tracy Morgan, and Richard Ayoade gets lost in a sea of sloppy storytelling. The story jumps around so much, from point to point, plot issue to plot issue that the movie never builds a decent level of interest.
The most troubling aspect of the entire enterprise? This is a Laika production, the same company that did the inventive ParaNorman and the superb Coraline. Of course, those films had different directors. Clearly, Annable and Stacchi weren’t up to the task.
For preteens and adolescents, and those hoping for a seedy underbelly to their animated features, The Boxtrolls might satisfy. In fact, it could even become a hipster cult classic among the college bound. But for your average ankle-biter who wants a trip to the Cineplex to see cute characters cutting up, a movie like this is a major mistake.