How strange is it that the same year a corporate product placement exercise like The Lego Movie turns out to be a subversive masterpiece, an independent studio with a so-far outstanding track record creates something so disappointingly typical? The Boxtrolls seems to be designed as Laika Animation’s bid for mainstream acceptance. And if the makers of Coraline and Paranorman actually achieve their goal, good for them, they’re outstanding artists who deserve a break-out success. Nevertheless, it’s disappointing how compared to the risk-taking of their previous films, Boxtrolls feels timid in comparison.
It’s not that it’s lacking in personality. The stop-motion visuals are top-notch as expected, with creative steampunk invention, expressionist lighting, and Pythonesque grotesquerie. It’s not even that the story’s uninteresting. There’s actually lots of interesting aspects to the story. The issue is that nothing’s developed particularly well. Be warned: this review is going to have to go into spoiler territory to talk about these issues, as it’s kind of impossible to talk about without them.
Let’s start with the protagonist Eggs, a human boy raised by boxtrolls. The relationship with his adopted family is believable, moving at times. The trouble is the script doesn’t do a good job figuring out his relationship to the outside world. He identifies as a boxtroll rather than a human, and when the human girl Winnie follows him into the boxtrolls’ underground world, the potential’s there for solid Tarzan-style drama. However, it’s muddled by how unclear the connection between Eggs and humanity is. Why does he speak English and not Boxtrolleese? Says it’s a “speech impediment”, but how did he learn English? How much does he know about human culture beforehand? These are minor things, maybe. Something decidedly not minor: how the movie deals with his human family, or rather, doesn’t deal with them. It gives them a backstory and even a reunion, but this reunion is surprisingly lacking in emotional resonance. Then there’s the annoyance of having yet another movie where the white male lead is the one who ends up the leader and savior of the oppressed group. The movie maybe sidesteps this a bit by leaving open the possibility the boxtrolls started their own escape attempt before Eggs’ inspirational speech even started, but it’s fuzzy on this matter. I wanted to see the boxtrolls take the lead in the fight against their oppression, not some white human male!
The most interesting and frustrating part of the movie is the lead antagonist. Archibald Snatcher is rather complex, a lower-class “red hat” striving to gain approval to join the upper-class “white hats” through his campaign of genocide against the boxtrolls. Yet the “white hat” lifestyle is based around cheese consumption, and Snatcher is deadly allergic to the very thing he craves. Where he’s most comfortable is when he’s in drag as “Madame Frou-Frou.” There’s a lot there to unpack there regarding the destructive nature of class structure, how the identities society says one should aspire to might not be the wisest aspirations when there’s alternative identities that might make one happier. Despite Eggs’ attempts to show him the light, Snatcher ends up a tragic figure. Which would be brilliant if the movie had the guts to condemn the situation that created Snatcher, but for some reason the insufferable idiotic white hats get off scot-free in the end. They learn to accept the boxtrolls but beyond that there’s no acknowledgement of the damage their system hath wrought to others. This is a step down from Paranorman, a movie which sharply held everyone responsible for its central moral tragedy and arrived at a particularly moving solution to its conflict. The happy ending here feels unearned and rather illusory.
Standing out as the most satisfying characters are Snatcher’s henchmen Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles, who are philosophically befuddled over the nature of good and evil. They’re one-joke characters, but it’s a really clever, at times emotionally powerful joke, and they’re utilized just enough. They also get what might be the best credits scene I’ve ever seen (though note I missed 22 Jump Street in theaters and haven’t yet seen its supposedly brilliant credits). If only the rest of the movie lived up to that.