The Imperfections in the Box

unnamedI love animated films. They’re inherently complex. They’re well-oiled machines. But they’re not perfect. Taking the impressiveness of CG pipelines as a given, there is a sort of visual homogeneity in the big animated films released a few times each year. They’ve become too smooth; they’re too spliney. Other forms of animation aren’t as “perfect.”

With stop-motion animation, each frame fluctuates with little imperfections in a character’s expressions. In a way, I find this more human. This is where Laika’s third feature, The Boxtrolls, excels.

Underneath the town of Cheesebridge are a group of trolls who are accused of kidnapping children. The mysterious Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) offers a proposal to the mayor of the town, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris). If Snatcher captures and kills the Boxtrolls, he will become a member of the town’s cheese-loving elite class known as the White Hats. But when Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a boy sheltered by the trolls since infancy, turns up on the surface, he soon figures out the horrors of Snatcher’s plan. Eggs enlists the help of Portley-Rind’s daughter and the two of them try to stop Snatcher at all costs.

The plot as presented is straightforward and never throws any real twists or turns, though it relies on metaphors and allegory much more than a typical children’s film. The true draw is Laika’s trademark stop-motion animation. At times the film feels a bit like a bad dream (and not in a bad way). It has all the twisted weirdness and confusion of the dreamscape without the terrors. And it’s the stop-motion, that imperfect art form, which really molds this feel. Archibald Snatcher’s repulsive cheese sickness is the most obvious example. As the film isn’t terribly bothersome to me as a (purported) adult, I can’t make the same claims for small children.

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To this end, I’m not sure the metaphorical commentary on human morality quite worked. The ways which the ultimate message – the consequences of misunderstanding an entire race – weaves together are familiar and neutered. Using little clay trolls limits what can be said about the horrors of history’s holocausts. And so I wonder what the point is and more importantly, at whom the point is directed. It’s hard to imagine such an odd story as one day becoming a children’s classic. And while the odd story is fun given the context of wider film theory and criticism, I’m not sure how many adults will find the film easily beloved either. The Boxtrolls favors the metaphor over the simpler and often more effective feeling of a given moment. Where The Boxtrolls abstracts death and slaughter, a classic like The Lion King tackles the moment itself with claws in the viewers’ flesh.

All this is to say the film shines in its technical craft and should be judged with special consideration given to that craft. I fear the marvelous discipline of Laika’s artists will be forgotten because the meat of the story isn’t very noteworthy.