Mark Reviews Movies

The Boxtrolls


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi

Cast: The voices of Isaac Hempstead Wright, Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Dee Bradley Baker, Steve Blum, Toni Collette, Simon Pegg, Nika Futterman, Pat Fraley, Fred Tatasciore

MPAA Rating: PG (for action, some peril and mild rude humor)

Running Time: 1:37

Release Date: 9/26/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 25, 2014

The Boxtrolls is a strange little movie in love with its strangeness. We might be willing to embrace the movie, too, if only the very quality it champions didn't keep us at an arm's length. This is a movie operating on its own, wacky wavelength, and from the start, it seems to be pushing back against our comprehension of its world, its characters, its story, and whatever it is we're supposed to take away from it.

The screenplay by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava (based on Alan Snow's novel Here Be Monsters!) thrusts us into an odd scene featuring two men wearing tall hats (a major plot point, by the way) and Victorian garb debating the abduction a child and an imminent threat to the city's cheese supply. The city is in danger, one man says, and the Boxtrolls are to blame.

Anticipating the inevitable question, the nature of a Boxtroll is the easiest thing to explain about the movie. It's a troll that wears a box. These adorably ugly creatures come out of their subterranean lair at night and scour the city for useful pieces of garbage, such as gears and clocks and other mechanical doohickeys. When they sense a threat, they retreat inside their boxes in order to disguise themselves as, well, boxes. The success rate of this strategy diminishes greatly as soon as humans decide that the Boxtroll population needs to be exterminated.

It's not just a strange movie, then, but a considerably demented one, too. We're treated to the suggestion of genocide right out of the gate, and then there's also one of the movie's central characters, who can't stop herself from imagining the Boxtrolls cutting off her fingers and feasting on her entrails. As for the dispatching of the movie's villain, let's just say that it will take some considerable elbow grease to clean.

She's wrong, of course. The Boxtrolls are misunderstood creatures who are only concerned with collecting junk and building things from it. They even have adopted a human child and accepted him as one of their own. Like all the other Boxtrolls, he's named after the picture or word on the front of his box. He's Eggs (voice of Isaac Hempstead Wright), and the Boxtroll who acts as his father is Fish (voice of Dee Bradley Baker).

Years pass in a lovely montage of Eggs and Fish creating music with an increasing orchestra of garbage. It's the first sign that the movie possesses something other than silliness, although it doesn't last for long. Eggs outgrows his box, and the pile the Boxtrolls form when they sleep fades until less than a dozen remain.

The others have been captured by Archibald Snatcher (voice of Ben Kingsley), a social upstart whose only desire is to earn the privilege of wearing a white hat and being counted among the city's elite citizens. He might be able to join them in the cheese-tasting room of Lord Portley-Rind (voice of Jared Harris), whose daughter Winnie (voice of Elle Fanning) is the one obsessed with grisly visions of mutilation-by-Boxtroll. By the way, Snatcher has a debilitating dairy allergy that causes him to inflate to a puffy, red blob.

After the initial onslaught of vaguely explained exposition, it becomes a little easier to find a foothold in the material. When the movie isn't focused on plot, the characters and their eccentricities feel more inviting. Two of Snatcher's goons (Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan provide the voices for the trio) gradually begin to realize that they might not be the good guys in their own story, and for some reason, the easily irritated Boxtroll Shoe (voice of Steve Blum) is regularly amusing. Most of the other characters—and especially the Boxtrolls—exist as background with little worthwhile personality. The movie's best joke involves a tired, accident-prone one-man band, who unintentionally punctuates a pun.

The collection of these quirky supporting and ancillary characters feels random, and that randomness becomes overwhelming. There is a touching scene in which Winnie explains the concept of a father to Eggs, who has never considered the idea of his parentage, but otherwise, the plot and the various odd touches overshadow whatever connection we could have to the central characters.

Directors Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi, and the animation and design teams do maintain a consistent and complementary aesthetic for this story. The stop-motion animation is fluid (the scenes in which the Boxtrolls slide through tunnels to reach their realm) and precise (There's a neat gag just before the credits in which an animator is superimposed over a pair of characters discussing how they might be pawns in the universe). The world is a dark (as is often the case with 3-D conversions, perhaps a bit too much so) and feels appropriately pieced together (Note the city itself, which crawls up a cragged and crooked hill).

There's a lot of personality to the character designs, too, but unfortunately, that quality does not carry over to the personalities of the characters themselves. They are merely shallow agents of the movie's eccentricity. At times throughout The Boxtrolls, that mindset succeeds, but for the most part, it's too off-putting for its own good.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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