Sunday 19 October 2014

The BoxTrolls: A Suspenseful Review

With the hypnotic Coraline and the gutsy ParaNorman, Laika was two-for-two in my book. And I certainly believed their third sop-motion outing, The BoxTrolls, would extend their success. In fact this was my most anticipated animated film of 2014, as the teasers and trailers charmed me in a way that very few promotional campaign ever have. Then came the very mixed first reviews, and I started to worry. But despite that negative early buzz, I was still willing to enjoy The BoxTrolls.
So, did the Oregon-based studio strike gold once again, or is this their first flop? You can put an end to this absurdly thrilling suspense and discover my opinion after the break.

But first, a little background information, with very mild spoilers:
Cheesebridge is a town where the powerful residents live at the top. Among them, the members of an elite club wear a white hat; the White Hats (as they're accordingly calling themselves) have a lot of money, and they spend it on the very expensive cheese they eat at their meetings. Cheese is apparently the most important thing in Cheesebridge (shocker) and this creates some jealousy with the Red Hat Archibald Snatcher. Snatcher then decides to make a deal with the leader of the White Hats, Lord Portley-Rind: in exchange for a place in the White Hats' club, he will exterminate all the BoxTrolls, mysterious creatures who live under the town of Cheesebridge and apparently kidnap children.

The good:
There is a lot of quality in The BoxTrolls. First of all, the general vibe of the film is something you don't experience every day. And though it does feel like a Laika movie, The BoxTrolls is also its own thing. Granted, the filmmakers took some inspiration from various other films - who doesn't? - but the end result is something deliciously different from both Coraline and ParaNorman. Goodbye, grounded American setting; hello, imaginary European town of Cheesebridge! The BoxTrolls feels very British. From the Victorian setting, to the mostly British cast, to the Python-esque jokes, to the Wallace & Gromit connections; there is some fresh UK air storming through the whole movie. It's also nice that Laika is stepping away from the horror genre for once, and the charming tale that is The BoxTrolls is a blessing. Especially considering that editorial about stop-motion I wrote last year.

Another thing to love in The BoxTrolls is the look. This movie looks as sensational as ParaNorman and serves as further proof that the Laika folks are the new kings of stop-motion. The attention to detail is mind-blowing, the animation is just as gorgeous as it was with their two previous films, but what really stands out here are the action scenes. They are perfectly directed, fun, thrilling and are some of the highlights of this film; it's even more astonishing when you know how hard they are to produce in stop-motion. Each of them is a small miracle.

One character I particularly liked was that of Archibald Snatcher. Contrary to what Munir pointed out in his excellent review, he seemed perfectly balanced to me, and a very effective villain. He was in fact probably the character that had the most impact on me. Yes he's a bit of a buffoon sometimes, but he can also be threatening - particularly in the third act of the film. So I had no problem taking him seriously. It doesn't hurt that Ben Kingsley gives a wonderful vocal performance as the leader of the Red Hats.
The other characters are very good too... well, most of them anyway. The rest of the Red Hats gang are particularly funny and some of their dialogue is among the best the film offers. Once again, kudos to the voice talent - Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, in that case.
The BoxTrolls themselves stand out as well. They don't really talk, but each of them has a well defined function and personality. They are as lovable as the main human characters, if not more.

The filmmakers should also be praised for some of the themes they chose to tackle. The BoxTrolls may look light and silly at first glance, but it's darker and richer than you may think. Thus, the idea of genocide is treated, among other themes (more on that in the not so good section of this review, by the way).
Laika shows once again how courageous a studio it is by not shying away from unexplored territory in animated films.

The not so good:
I will now try to list the things that I thought didn't work as well as in Laika's previous feature film, ParaNorman. It isn't fair since ParaNorman is my favourite stop-motion film of all time; but, you know, life isn't fair.

- One thing that was very well done in ParaNorman was the way the story evolved. All the little twists and turns were surprising and made complete sense. It was a bumpy but rewarding journey. With The BoxTrolls, on the other hand, I felt the twists were just there because they had to be there. They didn't move the story forward and, what's worse, they weren't satisfying; mostly because they were obvious and I saw them coming.
Let me put this in amusement park terms: if ParaNorman was a dark roller coaster, The BoxTrolls is a dark roller coaster in which someone forgot to switch the lights off. As a result, you can see how the whole thing works and know exactly where you are headed. It may still be an enjoyable ride, but some of the magic is lost.

- Thematically, ParaNorman was very focused. The story was about bullying. That's pretty much it. The BoxTrolls is not focused. Is it a tale about who you are supposed to be? About the dichotomy of good and bad? Or a reflection on class conflict? Maybe it's about genocide, or father-son relationships... The filmmakers clearly lost their way in amongst the many themes the film took on. Too many things to say, too little time. This ends up hurting the pace of the film, and some plot points are under-developed.

- Despite some entertaining songs, I didn't think the score was as good as ParaNorman's. But you know what? That might be just me. Munir found the Dario Marianelli music great and he probably is on to something. When I first saw ParaNorman, I didn't particularly like what I heard - as you can see in this review I wrote at the time (my first review on this blog, by the way) but it has since grown on me. So maybe I'm stupid and should just shut up.

"Well, we still don't know if he liked it," "This moron is just listing things now" or "THIS SUSPENSE IS KILLING ME" are some of the things that you should be thinking right now. Well, here is what I ultimately believe: yes, there is some stuff that doesn't work in The BoxTrolls. You can't help but feel the story could/should have been stronger. Especially when you compare it with a film as stellar as ParaNorman. But not being perfect - not being as great as one of the highest animation standards in the past few years - doesn't make you bad. For me, The BoxTrolls is far from bad. It's actually very good, because in the end the good clearly outweighs the not so good.
This is why I highly recommend it. Laika has now given us three very good stop-motion films in a row and I can't wait to see what they're coming up with next.


  1. I loved it.

    I think any negatives found with the film are just because people are looking to fault it. It's much like Tarantino's underappreciated third film Jackie Brown. After such a solid start it's hard to maintain quality and any cracks that appear seem like chasms compared to the small cracks they really are.

    I think I'm somewhat lucky in that it was only the last few months that I finally sat down and watched Coraline and ParaNorman. It was just something about the trailers that never appealled to me even in spite of my love for stop-motion. But with seeing all three films so close to each other and not having time to fully digest them or have too much time to put then on a pedestal I feel that Boxtrolls is very much on par with the other two films. I found Boxtrolls charming, funny and very brave with what it was trying to achieve.

    I'm really loving how stop-motion is willing to push the envelope in dorections that CGI won't. I think because it's always been the weird cousin of animation stop-motion has to deliver quality stories or they're doomed to fail.

    Great review by the way.

  2. I agree it's critically tougher for a film to come after a success than a failure.

    Knowing that, I tried to lower my expectations for The BoxTrolls (some very negative early reviews helped a bit) but I couldn't help but compare it to ParaNorman - which is not cool, as I noted in the review.

    I certainly don't think The BoxTrolls is miles behind ParaNorman or Coraline, quality-wise. It equally succeeds - if not more - in some areas, and lacks in others (story, mainly).

    And thanks for the comment :)