Saturday, September 27, 2014

THE BOXTROLLS - Beautifully Bizarre

I'm not entirely sure who The Boxtrolls is "for" (other than me) in the sense of target demographic or potential audience. It's a stop-motion animated film, hardly an historically record-breaker at the box office, and Laika (the studio behind Coraline and ParaNorman) hasn't bucked this trend. And while it's been marketed as a family film, its tone and sensibilities have more in common with PG-rated "kids" films of the 80's than more modern fare, the kind like Ghostbusters or Gremlins that have just as much material for the adults that will fly far enough over the heads of kid audiences that it's still "safe" for them. Barely.

But I'm pretty ecstatic that it exists at all, regardless of why.

The Boxtrolls is tasked with establishing a lot of story, setting, and character in the opening few scenes of the film. Set in Cheesebridge - a town equal parts semi-steampunk Victorian London, Switzerland, and France - the titular Boxtrolls are established as a scapegoat by Archibald Snatcher who sets them up as a man-eating boogeyman that only he and his Red Hat Exterminators can be trusted to eliminate. In exchange for the power to enact a strict curfew, have their run of the streets after dark, and the promise of a chance for Snatcher to join the White Hats who run Cheesebridge.

Of course, the creatures are gentle and rather easily frightened, protecting the baby they're accused of kidnapping and eating who, ten years later, enters the story as Eggs (Boxtroll naming conventions coming from whatever their boxes contained before being re-purposed as "clothing"), a child who is the only member of his adoptive family who wants to take action in response to the dwindling number of Boxtrolls thanks to Snatcher's relentless actions. He ends up with the unlikely ally of Winifred Portley-Rind (yeah, the movie's pretty stuffed with these kinds of puns), a girl with a ghoulish fixation on the monstrous legend of the Boxtrolls (a fixation which comes with some of the best lines of the film) and a complicated relationship with her White Hat father.

And yes, the film does have a running theme of absent fathers (between Eggs never knowing his and Winifred being ignored by hers), which leaves the question of mothers rather obviously on the back burner, which is odd. However, while Winifred's mum amounts to little more than a shrugging presence, Winnie herself is a brilliantly fleshed-out character (in more ways than one - no one in this film conforms to "normal" standards of beauty, and Winnie's notably pudgy frame feels refreshing in a female lead), and the film's other thematic through line - namely "what people will do to fit in and how that ultimately only keeps us apart" - is richly explored.

Apart from a couple notable oversights, the film is rich as a whole. This is easily the most complex and technically ambitious stop-motion film ever, with several shots and sequences that indulge in fore-, middle-, and background elements all moving at once (each having to be animated by hand 24 times a minute), with shifting focus and tons blending elements like smoke, fire, and honestly there are points where it feels like Laika is just showing off. This goes for the film's (delightfully twisted) sense of humor as well. There are some obvious  and beautifully set-up jokes, but there are also loads of sight gags packed into the frames as well as sequences of much broader and cruder (though still character-based) humor that worked on the kids in my audience like a charm.

The Boxtrolls doesn't have the same perfect creepiness or bold convictions of Laika's freshman and sophomore efforts, but it sports a unique visual style, delightful scatological sense of humor, and for fans of the medium, some of the most amazing technical and design work out there. It might be a bit more crass than some parents are expecting, but it's the sort of crass that kids appreciate far more than adults tend to realize.

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