dir: Graham Annabele and Anthony Stacchi
The Boxtrolls is another of those somewhat anachronistic animated movies that uses a lot of actual, physical, stop-motion animation to tell a story. As such it possesses a physicality missing from most of the purely computer generated animation we see these days, and that’s its curse and part of its charm.
In and of itself, that doesn’t guarantee a blissful experience. This mob, calling themselves Laika, have put together a decent animated film before (Coraline) and an okay one (ParaNorman) as well, so it’s reasonable to believe that they know what they’re doing.
The Boxtrolls is better than ParaNorman , and perhaps almost on a par with Coraline, though not as thematically rich or inventive. Despite what some might call a grotesque and macabre aesthetic, this one, from a kids’ perspective, is not as personal and frightening as Coraline, or as horrific as ParaNorman (which had, as its Big Bad, the vengeful spirit of a murdered child, if you can believe that, and sadly you probably can).
And yet it manages to create an odd, solid, squalid but entertaining world, one which delivers an amusing and garish take on the weird hierarchies that govern the functioning of human endeavours. The town in question is Cheesebridge. It is an impressively rendered place that would be hell for people, like me, who hate walking uphill. Every street and lane rises steeply from the last, to give the impression that it is more like a place meant to recall a stack of boxes, rather than a believably realistic town built on a hill just to make life difficult.
The economy of the town, as you might guess, is cheese based. The elites who rule the town control the cheese. They wear white hats, and they sit around in the Tasting Room, tasting the finest cheeses that their corrupt and negligent efforts can supply. The head of these cheese-derived despots is Lord Portley-Rind (Jarred Harris), who speaks with the affected aristocratic archness of someone to whom the daily lives, hopes and dreams of the peasants of Cheesebridge are of less consequence to him than the angsts and troubles of various ants. Long as he gets his cheese, the rest can all hang or burn.
The White Hats are a closed club. Nil entry unless you’ve got the cheese to get in, and no-one else has got the cheese. Archibald Snatcher (Sir Ben Kingsley), a phenomenally grotesque creature that Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare wish they’d thought up, is a man with a plan. He doesn’t want to just be let in. Oh no. He wants to earn his way in, with intense, passionate focus and endless hard work. He may look like someone who should be running the stage at a freak show, or in the freak show himself, or underneath a swamp, but he aspires to be a great man.
Problem is, the White Hat / Cheesy aristocracy do not allow upjumping, or the transcending of one’s caste. People can go ‘down’, surely, but never up. Thus is Archibald Snatcher, the Great Archibald Snatcher, compelled to come up with an elaborate, all-encompassing plan that will force them to let him in. By the end of it, they’ll be begging him to accept a hat. And more.
With all exclusive clubs, there has to be an entire array of underclasses in order to support them. Sure, the town has its cobblers, fishmongers and butter churners, but the true underclass is comprised of the lowliest of the low, the Boxtrolls of the title who live under the town’s streets. They are harmless, sifting through the town’s refuse for their discarded crap in order to beautify their underground hovel.
And they occasionally steal stuff even when it’s bolted or nailed down. They’re resourceful, and they don’t respect property rights, clearly. The shiftless bastards: something should be done about them.
These passive, cowardly, harmless, slightly gross and boring creatures might have a movie named after them, but the story is never about them, not really. They’re probably the weakest part of the story, because they exist just to be there and to be odd. They serve an important function in the story, of course of course, but there’s nothing central about their existence. They could just have easily been jar goblins, lamp leprechauns or underpants gnomes.
They do wear boxes, though, that’s true. They don’t talk, except in these inchoate gruntings as if they’re both deaf and dumb, and we only find out what they’re saying when it’s translated by a character, a human character, who understands their ramblings. They call themselves whatever the box they’re wearing is called. So a boxtroll wearing a box with a fish on it would be called Potato, obviously. Nah, he’s called Fish, isn’t he.
And a certain box troll who’s much taller than the other trolls, and doesn’t really look like them, wears a box with eggs on it, so naturally he’s called Christopher Pyne.
No, he’s called Eggs, because, what else would he be called.
This human baby, and eventual boy, fulfils a mythic, fundamental role in Cheesebridge’s culture. You see, as Eggs ages, the numbers of his friends and protectors dwindles, not, as with my co-workers, through what’s known as ‘natural attrition’, but through the tender ministrations of the magnificent bastard known as Archibald Snatcher. He has convinced the town that the trolls are murderous beings, dead set on killing and eating all of the town’s children. Even worse, they’re going to steal all the town’s cheese if Archibald and his henchmen don’t eradicate them all.
Yes, like any great villain, Archibald Snatcher has henchmen. But, as far as they are concerned, and as far as they keep telling themselves and us, aren’t they the heroes, and the boxtrolls the villains? Two of the three henchmen engage in philosophical dissections of their actions and motivations, wondering aloud as to how their actions can be righteous if they seem to be doing the opposite of such, ethically speaking. Mr Trout and Mr Pickles, the Vladimir and Estragon of the piece, the Jay and Silent Bob, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are almost worth the price of admission alone, just to hear the despairing way in which they realise their own existential place in the universe, and in the story.
It perhaps helped, for me, that they were voiced by Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade. Frost’s voice I didn’t hear that clearly, but Ayoade’s distinctive whiny voice is unmistakable, and much welcome. Whether he’s voicing henchpeople, playing Moss on IT Crowd or directing interesting movies, I can barely get enough of him.
The plot doesn’t really matter. I don’t really need to tell you about it anyway. There are countless places splayed across the tubes of the internets that’ll give you plot synopses and even screenplay printouts. What I can tell you, about the only worthwhile thing I can tell you, is how wonderful I thought the bits with the villains were.
I thought Sir Lord Ben Kingsley’s voice work as the villain was sublime, truly phenomenal. And it’s not like Kingsley isn’t crap a lot of the time. I’ve seen him be terrible in more things than I’ve seen or heard him be great, despite his status as a peer of the realm (at least in title if not in land). I’ve even seen him play terrible, horrible unwatchable and unlistenable villains in movies you might remember him from such as Prince of Persia or BloodRayne or Schindler’s List. Well, maybe not the last one.
Look, I’ll admit, he ladles the Cockney accent on a tad thick, so thick it drips off every over-enunciated word. I thought it was a masterful performance. As villains go, for me, this one was memorable, not only for his villainy, but for the levels of his villainy as well. And, thoughtful and articulate as he may be, he’s not above going balls out crazy when it suits his purposes either
Not only does he fabricate the myth of the evil trolls in order to subordinate the town through a curfew and consolidate his power, he creates an alternate identity as a cabaret singer called Madame Frou Frou whom the stuffy White Hats disgrace themselves over, though ‘her’ real purpose is just to keep reinforcing the myth of the troll’s babysnatching ways.
All of this for some cheese. All of this because he just wants the cheese, and what it represents.
And in the final irony, Archibald P. Snatcher might actually be lactose intolerant.
I loved the town, the villainy, the elaborate social / evil structure that allows it to happen, the fun along the way, and the ridiculously appropriate way it all ends. There are elements that maybe didn’t work so well for me, but the bits that work fine worked well enough to overcome the other shortcomings. I laughed a fair few times, but, in a cinema packed with kids and their dubious parents, I was pretty much the only one.
When I’d initially seen the trailer for this months ago, I was sure my daughter wouldn’t want to see it, because I thought it looked like crap, and I thought “that’s $50 saved right there.” But she wanted to, and school holidays rolled around, and I was pleasantly surprised with the outcome.
You see, I forgot how much fun it is sometimes to side with the villain.
As an added ‘bonus’, there’s a post-credit sequence, with Mr Pickles wondering about his every action being manipulated by some unseen operator, as footage of an animator painstakingly (but sped up) moving the figures around, and we see how many days of work it took just to animate that relatively simple sequence. Breathtaking in its intricacy, and in the sheer amount of trouble it is to put together, it’s a reminder (if not a bit of a humblebrag) of what an amazing art form it still is in this era where dodgy and comparatively lazy computer animation reigns supreme.
The Boxtrolls. I didn't mind it too much!
8 times cheese is pretty great as a form of food, but not worth killing an entire species over out of 10
“Be prepared to say bye-bye to your brie, cheerio to your cheddar!” – no, don’t take away my cheese, how else will I keep my cholesterol sky high? – The Boxtrolls.