Saturday, August 20, 2016

In Defense of Laika's Hidden Gem "The Boxtrolls"

Scene from The Boxtrolls
This weekend marks the release of stop motion maestros Laika's latest film Kubo and the Two Strings. To say the least, the reviews have been positive - arguably the best for the studio since their big debut Coraline in 2009. When looking at reviews however, there seems to be one film that is left out of the average critic's summary of the studio: The Boxtrolls. While it is done in part for succinct summaries, it also is telling that their third feature maybe doesn't have quite the reputation of Coraline or ParaNorman. Even reviews at the time that would suggest that the 2014 release was their first misfire. However, there's something that should be noticed about The Boxtrolls. It may not be the prettiest film in Laika's collection, but it has a lot more innovation and heart than it gets credit for. It's the underrated gem worthy of a second glance.

For the sake of comparison, Laika is the stop motion equivalent of Pixar. One could see Coraline as their Toy Story: an ambitious debut that redefines the medium. ParaNorman could be The Incredibles: a silly yet personal genre film. What does that make The Boxtrolls, a film whose villain essentially becomes a horrendous monster when he eats cheese due to a dairy allergy? To be totally honest, the fair comparison may be A Bug's Life: the underrated, scrappy film that has faded into second tier for the studio despite having a lot of ambition than it gets credit for. Much like A Bug's Life, I reckon that The Boxtrolls' status in Laika's catalog will be seen more as obscure than regaled as one of the masterpieces that makes the studio one of the heroes of modern animation. 

In fairness, The Boxtrolls is a bit harder of a sell than the other films. Coraline and ParaNorman both have child protagonists experiencing supernatural phenomenon related to personal growth regarding parents and siblings. While that is present in The Boxtrolls, it is buried underneath themes that go beyond the childlike gaze. It's a story about societal class structures and the familiar "Don't judge a book by its cover." theology. It's a story that somehow revolves around hats and cheeses - which may be one of the less exciting central points that Laika has ever used. It's absurdist in ways that aren't as easy to forgive, if just because trolls who live in boxes are less marketable than multidimensional worlds or zombies. They're ugly, and the film is at times extremely ugly both morally and visually. Yet if one gives it another chance and sees beyond it, there's a chance that it's one of the most ambitious children's films of the decade so far.

For starters, The Boxtrolls is trying to appeal to a different style than every other Laika film. The film is essentially using macabre imagery reminiscent of 19th century France. Even if the film isn't designated to a particular region other than the hillside town of Cheesebridge, there's a lot that feels reminiscent from the cobblestone streets to the rickety buildings and attire of the various town folk. In nothing else, it has a Western European vibe that comes through in the small details, including the Dario Marianelli penned "Quattro Sabatino." There's performances put on to weary town folk of The Boxtrolls, suggesting that they will steal from you and eat your children. It is so ingrained that when upper class girl Winnie (Elle Fanning) visits The Boxtrolls' underground home, she is disappointed by the lack of blood and bones. In fact, she has a sick desire for the grotesque despite being prim and proper.

As much as the story around protagonist Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) feels familiar, it's everything else that should be recognized as inventive. Despite having a fairly juvenile central plot around antagonist Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) and his desire to spread lies about The Boxtrolls to make himself look better socially, he becomes an interesting figure when placed into the bigger picture. It could be that Kingsley gives one of the greatest vocal performances of the decade by playing a variety of conniving and accented alter egos in order to find his way into upper class. However, it is in the slow revelation that sometimes trying to get what you want makes you an ugly person, that the story begins to shine in its unapologetic darkness. Considering that Snatcher kidnapped Eggs' dad (Simon Pegg) and turned him into a nutcase by hanging him upside down for years on end, the story gets pretty disturbing real quick in the third act. 

Snatcher's one dimensional goals may seem bizarre to the casual viewer, but it helps to raise a whole lot of questions about class. Is it really worth ruining people's lives just to have a literal taste of wealth? What is wealth but just a title and a uniform? The simple choice to turn the coveted "White hat" into a MacGuffin that is thrown carelessly around to keep Snatcher from obtaining it shows how significant it truly is. By the time that Snatcher gets his goal, everyone more humors his bullying ways, knowing that it won't end well for him. His reputation in the town is enough to make him a bigger pariah than The Boxtrolls were at the start of the film. In fact, the choice to make Snatcher more grotesque is purposely done to emphasize how soulful and not ugly The Boxtrolls actually are. They may look different and lack the social standard of beauty, but they raised Eggs into a functioning teenager. If viewed as an allegory for how the lower class interacts with the upper class, it's actually a pretty bold notion - suggesting that we're all more similar than we think, and fear mongering will not get us anywhere.

This is all well and good, but it almost seems criminal to have gone this long without discussing what makes Laika so important to modern animation: the animation. Yes, it is repulsive and the 19th century aesthetic is a bit more rugged. However, this film feels more grounded in classic cinema than anything that the studio has done before. There's the German Expressionism that can be seen in the opening section where The Boxtrolls move around a dangerous landscape. It at times feels like a slight nod to Fritz Lang's M, with the cruel fate of light being the least desirable goal. The film also takes its set design advice from more classical horror, such as James Whale's Frankenstein, where there town is very similar in design and has a drive similar to the fear placed on the misunderstood monster. In fact, it would be easy to think that anyone attuned to early cinema would be more willing to admire The Boxtrolls' aesthetic than the far more stylized and supernatural-based other films that feel more reliant on the excellent stop motion/CG animation blend.

In that regards, The Boxtrolls is reserve, choosing practicality more than whirling digital colors. It is also helpful that this may be Laika's greatest achievement in the art of motion. To watch The Boxtrolls go about any small task is to witness a craft in work. The average Boxtroll is essentially a box surrounded by limbs that pop in and out like a Whack-A-Mole. It creates for endless visual language that includes clever scenes that involve The Boxtrolls stacking their box-shaped bodies on top of each other before grabbing hands as they form a chain over a fence. This is also seen in the journey from the surface of Cheesebridge to the underground home, where elaborate tunnels guide the way. There's wonderful, almost surfing animation that shows the characters stylistically return to their home. Not only is it a beautiful set where small details are tuned with precision, but the arrival has some of the most kinetic energy of any of Laika's films. The Boxtrolls may otherwise be a tad one note, relying more on comical gurgles, but the film makes great use of movement in ways that children, zombies, or even anything in Kubo and The Two Strings will give you.

The Boxtrolls is definitely an acquired taste in comparison to Laika's other three films. However, it is one of their most ambitious visually and in narrative. While every film has had the benefit of emotional subtext, The Boxtrolls' choice to make it about something beyond kid friendly themes makes it feel like a film that has longevity and is worthy of exploring as the viewer gets older. It evolves from fun animation to a clever take on hierarchy through the guise of cheese and hats. It may not have the fluidity of the other films, but it definitely deserves more credit for paving the way for the exciting and most rich film that Laika has released yet in Kubo and The Two Strings. Even if you feel repulsed by The Boxtrolls, I hope it's for the right reason. It's an underrated gem likely to become obscure by the studio's standards in time. Still, it's one of the best obscure films imaginable, and that's a fine legacy to have.

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