[Review] - The Boxtrolls

Courtesy of Laika
Animation used to be hard. Not that I'm saying that computer animation is by any stretch of the imagination easy, but it was an entirely different beast when every single frame of a film had to be created by hand. To put that much exhaustive and excruciating effort into a work, the creators behind the scenes have to be in love with what they are creating. They have to be willing to bleed for it. Because if they spend years building something with that care and attention, what they produce is going to be imbued with that care and devotion. The same is literally true of everything, and a great many of our modern ills might be sorted out if folk did things for themselves, by hand. But especially animation.

I rarely see animated films anymore, which is a shame because it is my absolutely favourite medium. I spent my childhood wanting to draw for a living, and was handicapped only in a complete lack of artistic talent. But animation remains my first and truest love. And more often then not, when I see animated films today, I get no sense of love from them. Especially the garbage being spewed from the frothing maw of Sony. It's all just empty chatter and flashing colours. It's a strobe light above a crib, meant to draw the eye and quiet the child. Animation rarely lives anymore on screen.

Except when it comes from the literal hands of Laika. When I see one of their films, I feel the love behind the screen bleeding through every frame. I feel the world they've painstakingly made and manipulated and give to us. It was true of Coraline, it was true of ParaNorman, and it remains true of the Boxtrolls, which is probably their best work yet. It askews the tepid, uninspired norms of the modern medium in favour of vigor and guile, and an almost Victorian sense of maturity from it's audience. It's beautiful to watch and easy to fall in love with, and on top of all that, it's a damned good story too.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that regret so much.

It has never set right with me, the celebrity culture invasion of animated pictures. It started with Aladdin, as far as I can tell. Certainly, beforehand, there might be a recognizable name in a cast. A Vincent Price, Billy Joel or Angela Lansbury, but they were usually in a smaller or supporting role. Voice acting was left up to voice actors. Then Aladdin happened, then Lion King, and both were anchored and advertised based on the major names providing voices. Then came Toy Story, which broke the bank on star power, and after that it never stopped. Animated films were sold based on which celebrities were in the casts rather than the contents or quality of the stories they told. It became yet another example of style over substance. At least Pixar continues to make unexpected and eclectic choices when casting their films (they remain the only studio to give Patton Oswalt a starring role in a film).

Laika isn't like that. While no one in the exceptionally talented cast of The Boxtrolls isn't a respected actor, the film was never one sold off the back of their participation. And, never once throughout the film does it seem like any of the actors took the job because it was a quick and easy buck, which too is becoming all too common. It's the sort of film where you crave the credits to roll, to match up the character with the actor whose voice you just couldn't place through the whole thing. The actors actually give attention to their characters, and that sells the film perhaps more than anything else. The characters feel real because the actors gave a damn when giving them voices.

Ben Kingsley alone deserves paragraphs of praise for his next-to-unrecognizable turn as the villainous Snatcher, a man whose completely lack of morality is supplanted by his obsessive desire to rise above his station in life. It's a fabulous performance in a film that largely hinges on the character's repugnance. As much as has been made of the film being the story of Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), it's just as much an antagonist driven picture, with the moral center to the story derived from the actions and failures of the villain. Laika isn't interested in telling clear-cut Aesop's Fables, and selling an easily packaged and repeatable line about how life is and isn't meant to be. If they are trying to get a point across to their audience, then they certainly aren't of the mind to speak down to the audience.

Laika also works from the old Disney assumption that the audience isn't filled with sugar-addled children and desperately disassociated parents. It assumes that this is a film, and that people are watching. All people; any people. In fact, this isn't a film for the little ones. This is not a film of action sequences and explosions and merchandise available at the big box store yet door. This is a film that deserves attention and respect, and will not get that from agitated kindergartners. Not to mention, it's scary as hell, and far too dense a subject matter for someone who has only just mastered object permanence to handle. Which is why they should absolutely see this film. They won't understand it, but this is the sort of film I would love my parents to have raised me on. Twenty years from now, half the audience I saw this with is going to sit down and watch it again with only the most fleeting of memories of the first time, and it's going to blow their minds.

The film is a bold stab to the side of modern animation, and not just because it was created with an "out-of-date" method of laboriously hand animating every frame. It has a social message at it's core, and isn't afraid to broach challenging questions about society through a perverse and hilarious lens. Cheesebridge is a corrupt and caste-driven city in decay. Politicians survive on fear mongery and apathy to fuel their incumbency and self importance. The laudable goal of achieving more for yourself than the generation before you, to actually improve your station is simultaneously encouraged and prevented. And the boy shouting that the Emperor has no clothes is stuff into the broom closet. A keen eyed adult in the audience needed stretch their mind too far to see the parallels.

Below all of this, below the fear and the apathy and the hoarding and wasting of resources on items deemed necessary is a suppressed undercurrent of creativity and genuine emotions, in the form of the Boxtrolls, who reminded me of Fraggles more than anything else. Fear and shrouded in misinformation, the trolls are a socialist collective striving only to be happy in their own world, and being constantly assaulted and manipulated by the desperate and afraid from above. I felt more for Fish and Shoe than I have for any Pixar character from their last half dozen films. As Eggs spends the film, desperately trying to find someone to help him, using old ideals and senses of decency in a stripped and hollow world deaf to the pleas of the individual, you'd be horrified by the honesty of the message, if you weren't laughing so hard, either from the clever wit of the script or the uncomfortable monstrosity of the design.

Boxtrolls does what all animated films should do, which is envelope the viewer. It pulls you in, absorbing you in a fully realized but entirely impossible reality. A twisted vision that can only exist in the staggered moments of a slowly realized invention. The sort of place that you wish were real. That operates on rules and physics that you secretly want to take hold here. A place that is far more interesting and honest than we're capable of out here, in the flesh. It does what all good storytelling does, which is take you on an unexpected adventure. It's a reminder of what a power element in the creative process real love is, and how easy we forget what substance feels like between our teeth (metaphorical teeth, that is: do not try to chew this film, you will be asked to leave).
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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