Skip to main content

Someone’s got the cheese fits again.

The Boxtrolls
(2014)

I’m not quite sure how The Boxtrolls scored an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. Perhaps it was purely on the basis of the stop motion craftsmanship, rather than the film as a whole? It’s good news for Laika, the studio behind it, which is three-for-three in Academy Awards nods (or four-for-four, including their contract work on Corpse Bride), but in terms of storytelling they’re suffering diminishing returns.


Perhaps this is explained by the quality of the source material of their first feature, Coraline. Certainly, it’s way out in front of both this and Paranorman. And Paranorman is superior in turn to The Boxtrolls. Based on Alan Snow’s 2006 novel Here Be Monsters!, Graham Annable and Antony Stacchi’s movie (from a screenplay by Travis Knight and David Ichioka) concerns the attempts to exterminate the titular creatures from the town of Cheesebridge. Take a wild guess as to its most prolific product; the fromage-based gags are actually one of the picture’s better features.


Laika have been bigged up as a progressive studio, but their commentary on prejudice and class boundaries here is as subtle as an Edam brick. The trolls are made out to be child-eating monsters, pursued by pest exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley). Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone judges by appearances, and beneath their grotesque, grunting exteriors lurk hearts of gold. They raise a boy named Eggs (Game of Thrones’ Isaac Henpstead-Wright) as their own and, equipped with his very own troll box, he believes himself to be one of their kind (somehow, Eggs also develops the ability to speak human). The Boxtrolls are merely the lowest rung of the class ladder. Their oppressor, Snatcher, longs to sit at high (cheese) table with the council of White Hats who run Cheesebridge. He has been dangled the carrot of his very own white hat if he rids the town of Boxtrolls.


On the council is Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), a remote and absent father whose stuck up daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning) becomes entangled in the fates of Eggs and the Boxtrolls. This is fairly crude stuff, perfectly admirable in terms of moral lessons, but too schematic to really have a heart. Eggs isn’t just an orphan urchin, but the offspring of the town’s greatest inventor, one of such estimable character that he made friends and entertained the Boxtrolls while other shunned them. The picture is too nice to really have any teeth beneath its surface level fascination with bodily function jokes and utterly evil schemes; none of the trolls have been exterminated after all, and Eggs’ dad is perfectly all right (well, as much as he can be voiced by Simon Pegg).


While the stop motion animation is very good, there’s something possible a bit too polished about it, as if the edges have been rubbed off. It’s no wonder some have mistaken it for CGI (particularly when studios have gone down the route of producing CGI animations in stop motion style). There’s a grotesquery to the designs that, the Snatcher aside, comes across as rather generic and lacking in flair. Added to this, the colour palate is unremittingly dull and muddy, as if Laika are intent on sucking all vitality from the screen.


If the technical side is accomplished, it’s rarely matched by the onscreen antics, then. There’s one absolute standout, and that’s Ben Kingsley’s villainous voice work as Snatcher. It’s one to cherish, up there with his OTT characters in Sexy Beast and Iron Man Three, and the animators are clearly enthused by the opportunity to add body to the part. Snatcher is visualised with more than a touch of Timothy Spall by way of Gerald Scarfe, complete with an allergic reaction to cheese that causes him to hallucinate; the latter owes a debt to Eddie Murphy’s rubbery transformations in Nutty Professor.  


Kingsley relishes Snatcher’s malicious glee, and the exaggeration of his character is the closest Boxtrolls comes to Roald Dahl-esque black comedy (with a bit of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life thrown in for his explosive demise). The makers are careful even here, however, offering Snatcher redemption (“They don’t make you. You make you,” pleads Eggs/the Trubshaw Baby, addressing the illusory nature of Snatcher’s sought-after acceptance by high society).


Kingsley also has the chance to double up, as Madame Frou-Frou Snatcher’s anti-Boxtroll propaganda spouting alter ego. That Lord Portley-Rind finds Frou-Frou alluring is typical of picture that only goes in obvious directions, however (“Oh my God, I regret so much” he comments on learning the truth). They’ve even cast Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade as henchmen, whose initially clever dialogue (“You really think these Boxtrolls understand the duality of good and evil?”) grows stale. Even the meta- discussion at the end is a bit of a fizzle.


It isn’t unusual for the villains or supporting characters in an animation to be the strongest part of the picture, but in The Boxtrolls the leads are particularly weak. There isn’t much to them, aside from tapping into kids’ fascination with vulgarity (wee jokes, bare bottoms, eating grubs, regurgitating food). I’m not sure if the stiffy joke at the end was intentional (one of the now-naked trolls holds out a remote control in a suggestive position), but it wouldn’t be a surprise (there are gags about scratching one’s privates).


Stop motion animation can find wide audiences, as Aardman has proved, if not nearly as wide as CGI, but Laika appears to be ploughing a perversely narrow path of over-earnest moralising, unattractive design work and charmless characterisation. If their storytelling were up to the standard of their technique, they’d be bagging the Best Animated Picture Oscar every time.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.