Venice Film Review: ‘The Boxtrolls’

"The Boxtrolls" Film Review

The latest from the studio behind 'Coraline' and 'ParaNorman' squanders Laika's considerable artistic talent on an unappealing concept and screenplay.

They’re not cute, they’re not funny. They’re neither scary nor special nor even all that original. Ladies and gentlemen, they’re “The Boxtrolls,” and as animated kid-movie characters go, these drab, cardboard-clad critters are about as compelling as a bunch of pet rocks. Repeating a lot of the same beats from the studio’s first two stop-motion adventures, “Coraline” and “ParaNorman” — a pair of Gothic fantasies in which outcast kids play intermediary between superstitious humans and their supernatural neighbors — Laika’s disappointing latest represents a baffling misappropriation of talent. Hundreds of gifted artists have poured untold hours into bringing to life this relentlessly unappealing script, ever so loosely adapted from Alan Snow’s “Here Be Monsters” book series, yielding only modestly better B.O. prospects for the company, owing more to their reputation than anything this pic delivers.

In the tradition of so many other kidlit-to-cartoon adaptations, from “Shrek” to “How to Train Your Dragon,” the writers have taken only the thinnest sliver of inspiration from the source material — in this case, the Steampunk city of Ratbridge (rechristened Cheesebridge for the film) and the whimsical species of boxtrolls. As afraid of humans as the humans are of them, these reclusive nocturnal creatures live beneath the streets of Cheesebridge, mumbling a sort of Ewok-like nonsense language and popping in and out of their boxes like kleptomaniac hermit crabs, stealing whatever’s left outdoors after dark.

One night, the boxtrolls take an infant back underground with them and raise him as one of their own. Assumed kidnapped, the missing “Trubshaw Baby” makes it easy for Archibald Snatcher (who looks like a tubercular Timothy Spall, but is voiced by Ben Kingsley) to spread nasty rumors about the boxtrolls and offer his own services for their eradication. Like a sinister Pied Piper of Hamelin, Snatcher gleefully launches into his genocidal campaign, all with the aim of earning a place among the White Hat-wearing aristocracy, led by Lord Portley-Rind (a delightfully distracted Jared Harris), who spend their evenings sitting around eating cheese.

Meanwhile, growing up underground among the boxtrolls, totally oblivious to the fact that he’s not really one of them, the boy (“Games of Thrones’” Isaac Hempstead Wright) comes be known as “Eggs,” after the carton that serves as his clothing. (His best friends are Fish and Shoe.) Given the peculiar rules of the parallel universe where the story takes place, directors Anthony Stacchi (“Open Season”) and Graham Annable (a videogame and comicbook vet) have a lot of ground to cover in the pic’s first reel, and it doesn’t help that it’s unusually difficult for audiences to figure out the film’s emotional core, from which all else should naturally follow. Judging by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava’s script, it’s as if no one at Laika ever had to pitch the project, and now that it exists, it’s tough to figure out an entry point.

Not until super-late in this inelegantly structured story — when Cheesebridge’s only other child character, Winnifred Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning) meets Eggs and follows him underground to boxtroll HQ — do we learn that the whole thing is intended as some sort of commentary on family. Winnie delivers a long speech on what fathers are, since Eggs grew up without one, and the audience is supposed to recognize that her dad’s a deadbeat, while all these misunderstood monsters have served as a remarkably supportive surrogate clan. So maybe families aren’t as narrowly defined as society’s been telling us (hint, hint), which would be a fine moral, if the movie didn’t immediately bludgeon that lesson with a grotesquely over-the-top finale, in which Snatcher unleashes something called the “Mecha-Drill” on Cheesebridge, sending Dario Marianelli’s orchestral score into overdrive.

Ever since making its feature debut with “Coraline” in 2009, Laika has edged its way to the front of the stop-frame game, innovating a proprietary face-replacement technology that allows for the most versatile and expressive performances ever seen in the labor-intensive animation technique. (The film features a nifty end-credits joke, in which reluctantly evil henchmen voiced by Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost raise existential questions while hands-on Laika topper Travis Knight can be seen animating the exchange.)

Before the Portland outfit arrived on the scene, Bristol-based Aardman Animation was the undisputed master, supplying slightly cruder craftsmanship but a decidedly wacky British wit. With “The Boxtrolls,” Laika appears to be synthesizing some of the most successful Aardman ingredients — big lips, bad teeth and a cheese-obsessed inventor, a la Wallace and Gromit; an elaborate underground world straight out of “Flushed Away”; plus silly voices courtesy of Simon Pegg and a raft of other U.K. comics — but without so much as a dash of that studio’s charm.

Here, the meticulously crafted world is stunning to behold, imagined to the minutest detail and photographed with the sort of dramatic lighting and dynamic camera movement rarely seen in stop-motion. Trouble is, it’s not a place most folks would care to spend any time. Above ground, the humans are ruthless American caricatures of ineffectual European dandies, while the boxtrolls’ domain is even less appealing. It features a few nice touches, like the way they pack up and stack themselves into a neatly ordered cube to sleep, but mostly, it’s a dirty place where vaguely Minion-like creatures eat bugs and live in squalor — hardly a “Peter Pan”-like Neverland that Winnie and audiences can’t wait to visit and hope never to leave.

Trolls can be tricky that way, though there are no shortage of the cartoon buggers on the way, from the magical support crew seen in last year’s “Frozen” to a pair of upcoming DreamWorks Animation features (Guillermo del Toro’s “Trollhunters” and another pic based on the frizzy-haired Danish toy line). Apart from a couple clever Eric Idle-penned songs, “The Boxtrolls” doesn’t feel especially distinct from Laika’s past two films or from other toons in the pipeline, begging the question why the team, which typically eschews safe marketing-driven bets in favor of more original (and narrowly targeted) offerings, didn’t abandon this concept and develop another project when they failed to crack the story on this one.

Perhaps the creative team simply fell in love with the world of Cheesebridge, which presented an entire island city to construct, along with a host of distinctive-looking characters, as vividly hued as they are oddly shaped. While his cheese-craving motives border on ridiculous, Snatcher makes an especially rich villain to animate, owing to both his cross-dressing alter ego Madame Frou Frou and the nasty allergic reaction that swells his face in the presence of fromage — to say nothing of Kingsley’s snarlingly over-the-top performance.

Compared to the above-ground world, with its steep streets and sharp corners seen both by day and night, the boxtrolls’ tunnels and caverns seem rather plain. So do the boxtrolls themselves: stumpy, gargoyle-like creatures who occasionally charm with their disobedient dog-like antics, but lack the memorable personalities of the Seven Dwarfs and other classic cartoon companions. If the idea here was to buy Snow’s book for these rascals, then junk the rest, instead of recycling Pixar tricks (during Eggs early bonding montage) and the same preachy anti-prejudice lessons seen in “ParaNorman,” the Laika team really ought to have thought outside the box.

Venice Film Review: 'The Boxtrolls'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Aug. 30, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production

(Animated) A Focus Features release and presentation of a Laika production. Produced by David Bleiman Ichioka, Travis Knight.

Crew

Directed by Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable. Screenplay, Irena Brignull, Adam Pava, based on the book “Here Be Monsters” by Alan Snow. Camera (color, 3D), John Ashlee Prat; editor, Edie Ichioka; music, Dario Marianelli; music supervisor, Maggie Rodford; production designer, Paul Lasaine; art director, Curt Enderle; costume designer, Deborah Cook; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), Ren Klyce, Tom Myers; re-recording mixers, Myers, Klyce, Nathan Nance; visual effects producer, Annie Pomeranz; animation supervisor, Brad Schiff; lead animators, Travis Knight, Malcolm Lamont, Jason Stalman, Daniel Alderson, Jeff Riley; line producer, Matthew Fried; assistant directors, Samuel Wilson, Kev Harwood; casting, Mary Hidalgo.

With

Voices: Ben Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Dee Bradley Baker, Steve Blum, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Simon Pegg.

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  1. Yolow TV says:

    I’ve just read the entire comments section of this page: it’s flipping hilarious. Guys, stop arguing about whether it’s going to be good or not, or whether homosexuality is acceptable or not (seriously? do we still have to talk about this?). It’s a film! And films are made for enjoyment! Calm down and if you don’t want to see it, no one is making you. You shouldn’t feel the need to comment rudely upon it.

  2. I love Laika and was super excited to see this film. But the article is correct, the pacing was slow, there were no stand out characters, aside from the villain, and it just lacked heart. Obviously it’s visually interesting, so I’ll give it a pass, but I hope their next film will be better.

  3. Ian says:

    Nonsense. The screening I went to had 4 rounds of applause. This movie has an eccentric charm Terry Gilliam would be proud to have influenced, though ironically the trolls are less interesting than the people in this exquisite world Laika has crafted.

  4. M J Dixon says:

    Just seen it in preview- and I’m sorry but this review is totally spot on. I was so excited to see it, loved Paranorman and whilst I can still utterly appreciate the artistry both in the characters and sets (and will buy the ‘Art of’ book) the film lacked a good script, poor storyline, some poor voice casting, bad pace (very slow at times) and any kind of natural heart. Whilst they picked some of the better elements from the likes of Despicable Me (minions) and Wallace and Gromit / other Aardman features they delivered them badly. I couldn’t connect with any of the characters apart from Snatcher the Villain (who was voiced and animated well) – overall a huge disappointment – and I really wanted it to be good.

  5. Anamerican N. Venice says:

    Couldn’t disagree more. The film is truly charming, the characters vivid and appealing. The story of two children growing up in a society divided by bigotry and hate overcome their own prejudice and topple the evil man responsible. What’s not to love! Considering what is going on in the world right now the message couldn’t be more relevant. I would agree however with Peter’s opinion of the art; Beautifully shot, gorgeous sets and costume, astounding craftsmanship at every turn. Bravo Laika!

  6. A. Underling says:

    This review reads like Red Hat propaganda!

  7. Touree says:

    Great review–I couldn’t agree more. The reception at the screening was mild, even as the praise for the artistry was high. It’s ultimately a drab cartoon that can’t figure out who it’s audience is, like all Laika cartoons.

  8. tiffany herring says:

    Hmm…. ive read other reviews, and they all say the Boxtrolls was an amazing movie…. im going to see it anyway, because it seems like a cute, exciting film. I dont care if you think its not very good, because thats just your opinion… i Iiked Coraline, and I LOVED ParaNorman. Laika studios is my favorite animation studio, and im going to see The Boxtrolls.

  9. Glenn C. says:

    Love how they think if they can base it on material that is already somewhat popular that it guarantees them zillions! Well, it doesn’t. But Hollywood just wants to bet on “sure things”! There are so many original great ideas out there waiting for that chance but they never see the light of day. Typical.

    • towelcigarette? says:

      You couldn’t be more wrong. To wit, I give you Guardians of the Galaxy. Original and from left field. Biggest movie of 2014. Laika films are creepy and I really want them to succeed but we have Tim Burton and even he’s tired. This may be a $1.99 download for me.

      • Guardians Of The Galaxy is unoriginal and totally predictable. Honestly, how can you claim it is anything other than utterly derivative. The lead character is Hans Solo crossed with Indiana Jones and so is the plot, what plot there is… it is a likeable, good-humoured film, I’ll grant you, but not original, not any of it.

  10. This is the most disappointing article I have read in a while.

    • Glenn C. says:

      It is but it may be the truth. If this reviewer knows what he is seeing and writing about. As we know it’s all about the script. If the script is bad then….everything else just follows.

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