It's so frustrating when there is a movie I really want to see in theaters and then miss the opportunity. I really had wanted to see The Boxtrolls (2014) in theaters, but somehow missed it. I'm a big fan of stop motion animation, and even though it seems to be a dying art in the face of high tech digital animation, once in awhile another feature film hits theaters. I'm glad there are studios and talented stop motion animators keeping the medium alive. The Boxtrolls ended up being a charming film featuring some stellar animation.
The Boxtrolls are a community of quirky, mischievous creatures who have lovingly raised an orphaned human boy, whom they named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), in the amazing cavernous home they've built beneath the streets of a city called Cheesebridge. The story is about a young orphaned boy raised by underground cave-dwelling trash collectors who tries to save his friends from an evil exterminator, the town's villain, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley). When Snatcher comes up with a plot to get rid of the Boxtrolls. Eggs decides to venture above ground and "into the light," where he meets and teams up with fabulously feisty Winnifred (Elle Fanning), the mayor's daughter. Together, they devise a daring plan to save The Boxtrolls family.
The animation in The Boxtrolls is fantastic! This was animated by Laika Studios, who also did Coraline, ParaNorman, and were contracted to do Corpse Bride. There is such beautiful subtlety in the characters' movements, from the subtle little facial expressions and eye movements to the insanely complex gestures and action scenes. Everything moves with marvelous fluidity and nonchalance. Even the bounciness of Winnifred's curly hair and swaying of Snatcher's greasy, ropey hair looks remarkably believable and convincing. The characters still have fascinating structure to them. Unlike most characters designed by Tim Burton, not all of the ones in The Boxtrolls are spindly; some are large and bulky, others are small and compact, and there are a few skinny, spindly ones, too. Some of the characters even change size and dimensions. Often when this happens, we're shown a projection of their shadow on a wall as they transform, but here we actually see the transformation in exquisite detail. Even these shots are done with amazing detail as the character struggles to maintain balance while we watch their weight shift significantly. I simply cannot speak highly enough of the animation here.
A complaint I had about the stop motion animation in ParaNorman was the frequent inclusion of some CGI to garnish a particular shot that simply couldn't be done with stop motion animation alone. While these shots and scenes often looked good, it kind of weakens the magic of stop motion animation when there's too much CGI. There was some CGI added here and there in The Boxtrolls, but it wasn't taking center stage. It took the form of clouds of smoke or dust to accent a shot, not take up the whole background as was done in ParaNorman. Minimal use of CGI was beneficial in the end. Most of its implementation was subtle and wouldn't have looked as good without it.
The story here is cute. We have a boy raised by a family of quirky lovable little creatures who are misunderstood, and worlds collide when the boy tries to interact with the people where he's from. Then we've got a token villain who is selfish and wants to exterminate the cute lovable creatures, and our hero has to straddle the line between both worlds to bring peace to both. The Boxtrolls doesn't really do much in the way of originality as far as story goes, it's a classic Hero's Journey story structure that's been used since ancient Greek myth. It's still a fun little story that anyone of any age could get behind, though, and the characters are remarkably charming, if a bit on the simple side.
The theme here seems to be trying to say something meaningful but it gets murky. It seems to be trying to say something about our nature, or how we were born. We're constantly told that characters behave in such a way that is simply in their nature, and they can't really change their circumstances. For example, it is in the nature of the Boxtrolls, themselves, to be passive and hide when there is danger. Eggs doesn't want them to change, but he tries to get them to run for their own safety but can't seem to get them to do it. When the Boxtrolls actually do flee on occasion, there is much applause for changing their nature. But Snatcher is motivated by climbing the social ladder and is actively trying to change his "nature" or circumstance but can't seem to do it. What's the message we're supposed to get from this? There's not even something to suggest that we have the circumstances we're given and we just have to do the best with what we can sort of manage. The murky theme is amusingly explored by Snatcher's henchmen who are frequently discussing the duality of good and evil and pondering whether they are inherently good or evil, and if they even have a choice in the matter. These same henchmen get a funny mid-credits scene where they speculate about giant omnipotent beings controlling everything they do while we actually see the stop motion animators manipulating the puppets for these characters. I'm really not clear what message I was supposed to get from The Boxtrolls, but I can overlook that since the rest of the movie was pretty good.
The Boxtrolls isn't Lakia's best film, but it's still very much enjoyable, as it is packed with enough offbeat wit and visual splendor to offer a healthy dose of all-ages entertainment. Visually, the film is a feast, stuffed with little jokes and surprises and the kind of black humor that Alfred Hitchcock heartily enjoyed, as well as having some painful, groaner puns. The animation is incredible, but the theme is obtuse and confusing. The Boxtrolls moves forward with revolutionary techniques in filmmaking, but mostly stands still as far as theme and story structure goes. It looks great, but no amount of visual trickery or animation genius can make a mediocre story any better than what it is. That said, I still liked The Boxtrolls a great deal, and I think it's worth seeing even if it is on the simple side. I just can't get over how great everything looked! The Boxtrolls is currently streaming on Netflix as of this writing and it's not a bad way to spend an hour and a half. Though there are parts that might be a bit too scary for younger viewers.