Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Review - The Boxtrolls

Laika – the Portland-based studio that specializes in a unique hybridization of stop-motion and computer animation – manages to draw ever-growing mountains of praise with every new feature they release, and not without good reason. Though geared primarily towards children, they never coddle their young audience, choosing stories that aren't afraid of being a little scary, a little dark, and even a little morbid. It's also impossible not to marvel at the studio's meticulous hand-made process, which has even become the lynchpin of their marketing identity.
But it begs the question: Even though the stories they tell are great, and the techniques they employ are great, is Laika churning out movies that are great? I'm not so sure they are. Of the three entries in their modest portfolio to date, 2009's Coraline is probably the closest thing to a complete film. Their follow-up, 2012's ParaNorman, exhibited exciting artistic growth but flagged in the story department. And now their latest, The Boxtrolls (directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi), might be their most technically evolved, but overall weakest film yet.

Based on the book Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow, The Boxtrolls tells the story of an orphan boy raised beneath the town of Cheesebridge by a race of impish creatures clothed in discarded boxes. What they lack in cuddliness they make up for in ingenuity, tinkering with discarded objects and repurposing them into whatever they may find useful or amusing.

They have to do their scavenging under cover of darkness, lest they risk capture by the duplicitous Boxtroll exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsely), appropriately designed in grotesque caricature like all of Laika's antagonists. In order to locate and liberate his kidnapped Boxtroll family, the boy (Isaac-Hempstead Wright) beseeches a well-to-do girl (Elle Fanning) to help him navigate the social conventions of the surface world and alert the townsfolk to Snatcher's nefarious plot. Oh, if only the adults in kids' movies actually listened to kids (which, of course, they never do)!
There are many, many themes that children would be sharp enough to detect and appreciate in The Boxtrolls – including but not limited to emotional neglect, adoption, standing up for oneself, and even the old debate about changing one's nature – but therein lies the problem. Rather than fashioning these mundane treasures into a new and greater whole (as would a Boxtroll), the screenplay merely piles them on with no real sense of cohesion. The film becomes a muddy wash of ideas and motifs that never settles on a central one.

Now, there can be no questioning the talent of the craftsmen and women at Laika: Their blend of computer-aided facial animation and traditional stop-motion method is as seamless as ever, while the miniature sets and costumes never fail to amaze with their maddening detail. And there can be no questioning their mischievous sense of humour, which runs the gamut here from a Cracker Barrel full of cheesy puns (literally, puns about cheese) to [MILD SPOILER] the most 'gut-bustingly' funny on-screen death I've seen in a while!

What isn't above questioning is their grasp of dramatic substance and form. What Laika needs to truly take its game to the next level is a writing team capable of refining their scripts into a thematically unified package.
Don't get me wrong: I'm glad there's a studio out there like Laika willing to produce material that other American animation houses would dream of touching, and willing to take the time and effort it requires to make it all look this amazing. I just wish they could deliver a screenplay wrought with just as much tedious love and care.

**1/2 out of ****

2 comments:

  1. Yup! It's so visually appealing, and yet the story and construction of it is so...lackluster. I personally wish the film had been silent and relied on the music alone, since the score and visuals were the best part of the film.

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  2. I actually enjoyed Boxtrolls more than you did (I would have given it three stars). It was really cute and funny, and of course visually splendid.

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