Friday, October 10, 2014

"The Boxtrolls" Review - Far From Laika's Best Effort, But Still A Charming And Fun Film For The Whole Family


Laika first arrived on the scene with the extremely well crafted and genuinely charming family film Coraline. That film, which landed on my list for top films of 2009, was an A class effort for a brand new studio trying to usher in a new era for a filmmaking style (stop motion animation) that despite seeing some latent (albeit monumental) success with A Nightmare Before Christmas, never really caught on with movie goers nor their target audience, children, the way it deserved to.

While the format is still struggling to find an audience that will eventually embrace it and make the time and care needed to make one of these films see the profits they deserve, Laika thankfully still carries on and has now delivered unto us The Boxtrolls. Their latest effort shares many of the same qualities we have come to expect from Laika, such as meticulous attention to detail, a clever sense of humor and an overtly bizarre sense of style that is wholly unique to their films. But whilt it is both visually their most striking effort, it is also emotionally their most vacant feature to date. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats: 
Projector Type: Digital 2D         
Film Rating: PG                     
Film Runtime: 1 hr 36 min    
Studio: Focus Features

Biases:  
Loves: Coraline, Stop Motion Animation
Likes: ParaNorman
Neutral:  Style over substance
Hates: That these films don't get the love the deserve
Why boxes?: We never get any insight as to why the trolls love boxes so much other than to hide in

The Boxtrolls aren't exactly the bloodthirsty creatures people think they are.
Cheesebridge, a London city that closely resembles a tall pointy hat, has an infestation running amok throughout its streets. This vermin isn't your usual rat or cockroach though, the creatures that haunt Cheesebridge at the dead of night are none other than a horde of trolls, but not just any trolls...boxtrolls. These trolls, given their moniker by the fact of how they wear boxes for clothing, roam the evening streets where they proceed to hunt for human babies to quench their insatiable appetite for human flesh...at least that's what resident boxtroll exterminator Archibald Snatcher (voiced by ) wants everyone to believe.

The truth of the matter is that the boxtrolls are very timid creatures and are nothing more than mere scavengers who scour the streets in search of tossed away trinkets to add to their bustling cave dwelling far beneath the city above. Snatcher has created this false veneer about the boxtrolls in order to garner favor with local aristocrat named Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by ), one of four White Hats (a symbol of their wealth) who oversee official city business but more importantly are in charge of all the cheese in Cheesebridge, a delicacy for the privileged and the wealthy. After Snatcher convinces Portley-Rind that the boxtrolls are responsible for the kidnapping and suspected murder of the Trubshaw baby he proceeds to rid the city of the unsuspecting boxtrolls.

Eggs was given to the Boxtrolls under mysterious circumstances.
The boxtrolls are not the only thing that lives beneath the streets of Cheesebridge however, as they also have in their care a baby boy who was given to them through mysterious circumstances. The boy, who they name Eggs (voiced by ) based on the picture of an egg on his box (which is how all the trolls gain their names), eventually grows older over the years while Snatcher continues to capture boxtrolls dwindling their numbers down to only a dozen or so. Then one day Eggs, now a young boy, and his adoptive boxtroll father Fish (voiced by ) encounter a little girl by the name of Winnie (voiced by ) who despite fearing the boxtrolls, becomes fascinated by Eggs and decides to help him find out what evil deed Snatcher is devising and hopefully find all the missing boxtrolls to restore order to the city of Cheesebridge.

Like all Laika's features the first thing that will strike most viewers are its arresting visuals. From the slightly off putting design of Snatcher and his geometrically distinct helpers, to the deceptively simplistic look of the boxtrolls themselves, there is little room for complaint when it comes to the eye candy on display here. Even the hilly streets of the physics-defying Cheesebridge have a personality all themselves that help construct the unique visual style of the film that will seem pleasingly familiar to fans of Laika's other work while still carving out a distinct visual identity all its own.

Trolls...in boxes...box...trolls? Boxtrolls.
Let's be real though, the visuals have never been an issue with Laika's features. The biggest hurdles the studio has had to manage have strictly been the stories they decide to tell and the way they tell them. Strictly speaking, their stories haven't really been all that memorable. Coraline was their biggest success when it came to spinning a tale that enchanted both adults and children alike, but their sophomore feature ParaNorman left a lot to be desired with its tale of a town invaded by zombies.

The Boxtrolls unfortunately suffers the same fate as ParaNorman as the story similarly fails to live up to the quality of the visuals on display. Eggs, as the obvious main protagonist of the film, is a fairly mute presence through most of the film and only begins to have a personality near the end. Winnie starts out fiery and plucky but quickly gets kicked to the sidelines where she becomes more of a background character. Even the boxtrolls have very little personality. Sure, their cute (sort of), make funny noises and we derive some pleasure from watching their antics, but aside from Fish they all fail to stand apart from one another.

Sadly most of the characters are fairly bland.
The only character that really has any sort of dimension to them at all is Snatcher whose role as the villain is the most complex character arc of the entire film and also becomes the key ingredient for the film's not-so-subtle message about being true to ones self. While it is important to have a sympathetic villain, it's just as (if not more so) important to have a protagonist who we can connect with in some way. Coraline was a perfect sympathetic hero-type, we cared for her safety and whether or not she succeeded. But here (and in ParaNorman), the hero character just feels flat. It can be argued that Eggs' journey didn't allow for him to have a personality until the very end, but that still doesn't give the film a free pass in that department.

But the truth of the matter is that even with these list of faults and misfires, The Boxtrolls still provides an ample amount of imagination, humor and character to fill any number of other bland and lifeless so-called family films that get released each year. It's sad that the story couldn't live up to the potential of its visuals, but The Boxtrolls is still a solid recommendation for anyone looking for a fun and imaginative family film to enjoy in the theater.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

Hopefully Laika's next project can find some way to fuse their already gorgeous animation stylings with a story and characters that resonate with the audience. Once they are able to successfully mix those ingredients together, there is no doubt that Laika can achieve the greatness they so rightfully deserve and then perhaps stop motion animation will finally get the respect (financially speaking of course) it deserves as an art form.

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