Boxtrolls Revisited

(To celebrate the release of Missing Link, we’re revisiting the stop-motion animated films of Laika this week and discussing why they’re so special. Today: The Boxtrolls showcases the kind of film, and filmmaking, that only Laika could make.)

Have you ever heard the nursery rhyme that sounded innocent at first? But then you grew up and you realized the lyrics had ghastly implications? Think of Ring a Ring o’ Rosie and its lyrical ties to the Black Plague. Think of Rock-a-bye Baby, where a baby falls from the branches. Think of the stop-motion movie The Boxtrolls, except it wears its ghastliness front-and-center, even as it is geared toward young minds. If Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens adopted a gremlin baby, they’d raise it to be this film.

Embracing the uncanny and ghastly is nothing new to the stop-motion handiwork of Laika. Films like Coraline and ParaNormal burst with horror elements – Laika animation has been handcrafting the peculiar from day one. But I find Boxtrolls, directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, to be the height of the bizarre and dark for Laika. Grotesque in every frame, an eccentricity prevails in its Victorian world of cobbled streets and crooked architecture with a childlike imagining of a crude society of Cheesebridge, where a town obsesses over cheese while knee-high gremlins live in their own steampunk playground beneath human civilization.

Boxtrolls focuses on a human orphan, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), who resides among a community of creatures, with their gunky grime-filled teeth and craggled chins, wearing cardboard boxes with labels that serve as their namesake. They communicate with grunts and grumbles (Dee Bradley Baker) and tapping on the boxes that clothe them. After the Boxtrolls is the exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), who spread lies about the Boxtrolls, posing himself as a savior, as he coverts the status symbol of the “The White Hat.” The White Hats, particularly the mayor, themselves aren’t upstanding citizens, gleefully spending taxpayers money on showcasing their possession of cheese.  

I grant you that many gags are cringey, such as the villain crossdressing in order to sing a propaganda ditty about the evils of the creatures. The Boxtrolls takes pleasure in forcing its audience to confront revulsion, whether its in outward appearance or morale, whether it’s a father who dismisses his daughter, whether it’s a villain about to toss a child into a fire, whether it’s an another awful gluttonous image. A few scenes engross the audience on the nauseating visual of the Snatcher consuming cheese as his face explodes into gushy boils that unsurprisingly took eons to animate. You might afford a pinch of sympathy for a villain who’s after something that will obviously destroy him.

The story feels grounded in child frustration against the upfront hypocrisy and immorality of corrupt grown-ups. The story is led by precocious children processing the injustices of the world ruled by egotistical adults. Eggs is distraught that his Boxtroll family has a difficult time subverting their meek nature for survival. Likewise, the spoiled rich Winnie (Elle Fanning) is beleaguered by her father’s constant neglect as well as his disregard for any productive law duties. A product of propaganda, she has been spoon-fed the false narratives about Boxtrolls from birth. But when she’s face-to-face with the truth of the Boxtroll’s amiable natures and their love for Eggs, she switches gears and fights on their side.

The Boxtrolls satirizes the irrationality of class, posh pretenses, and how social standards will have a hold on your environment. Gags include Eggs confused by the protocol of rich society, taking handshakes and “look them in the eye” instructions too literally. Winnie doesn’t realize how much she subverts propriety. Her initial repulsion of the Boxtrolls co-exists with her fetish for their alleged consumption of bloody baby bones. “I’m not obsessed. I just can’t stop imagining them gnawing off my toes and stringing them together as a necklace,” she tells her father with both disgust and thrill. See the scene where Eggs bites her. In the bewildered way Fanning delivers her line, the rich girl is more offended by the affront against manners rather than the physical harm.

But although The Boxtrolls might as well be Laika’s blackest film, it isn’t bleak. It delivers an optimistic conclusion on embracing the condition of the human – and bestial – state. It suggests that we can overcome the constraints of class and corruption. Regardless, The Boxtrolls wears its grime proudly. It’s a test to watch what transpires on the screen.

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