The Boxtrolls movie review: avert your eyes
There’s a fine line between baroque and grotesque… and The Boxtrolls crosses it. Here is a film that actively makes you want to look away.
I’m “biast” (pro):
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
There’s a fine line between baroque and grotesque, between gaudy and repellent… and The Boxtrolls crosses it to plop into a strange land of unpleasant visual muck. But not before it has already demonstrated a woeful lack of giving a damn about creating appealing characters, a compelling fantasy world, or a story to care much about. So it’s all good in the ways it goes about being all bad.
In a vaguely late Victorian/Edwardian steampunkish town called Cheesebridge — “a Gouda place to live”; Gromit’s owner, the cheese-loving Wallace, would disagree — a human boy named Eggs (the voice of Isaac Hempstead Wright: Game of Thrones, Closed Circuit) has been raised by the boxtrolls who live in a Rube Goldberg-esque realm under the city streets. The boxtrolls are shy, gentle garbage scavengers who clothe themselves in discarded cardboard boxes, but a false menace has been created around them by the evil Archibald Snatcher (the voice of Ben Kingsley: Ender’s Game, Iron Man 3), who plans to use a vow to eradicate the supposedly dangerous alleged pests as a way to social-climb into a place among the town’s elite “white hats,” who congregate in a special cheese-tasting room.
Big Problem No. 1: the boxtrolls are complete nonentities. While they are all slightly physically distinct — one might have a long skinny head, another a squat square head — they have no personalities beyond the vague general harmlessness that blankets them all. They don’t speak, except in a simple gibberish, sort of like Despicable Me’s Minions, but in a way that isn’t funny or charming or in the slightest bit interesting. And they don’t even actually do much of anything: they are present in the story only to be threatened, and to serve, eventually, as the objects of a simple yet heavy-handed lesson about unthinking hatred and bigotry. Their amorphous blobby homely cuteness isn’t enough to make them pop off the screen and into our hearts like they are clearly intended to, or how they need to as the center of their own story.
Big Problem No. 2: Eggs is only slightly less of a nonentity; he has been raised by the boxtrolls to fit well into their personality-free commune. And he only accidentally falls into his role as savior of the boxtrolls and eventual vanquisher of Snatcher (not a spoiler: this is obviously inevitable from the get-go): there is very much a sense of Eggs being pushed around by the story rather than him making decisions to be an active participant in it.
Biggest Problem Of All: The design of this stop-motion-animated world is ugly and garish. I’m not talking about the toddler-level grossout stuff, like how the boxtrolls eat bugs; that’s standard kiddie-movie stuff. I mean the petulant horribleness of bratty Winnie (the voice of Elle Fanning: Maleficent, We Bought a Zoo), a little girl who ends up as Eggs’s sidekick, whose disagreeable character is only exacerbated by her squinty, pinched face. And we’re meant to like Winnie!
(Oh, and another thing about Winnie: The children’s book this is based on, Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow, apparently features “Marjorie the inventor.” She is not present here, but it would seem that she has been transformed into Eggs’s human father, who is an inventor. Which leaves us with the horrid Winnie as the only female person in the story. Unless you want to count the man-in-drag figure, via whom the movie adds a dash of transphobia. Hooray?)
Perhaps the single best example of the animated awfulness here is the repulsive misshapen monster that Snatcher becomes when he eats the indulgent luxury cheese and succumbs to “cheese fits” that turn his face into a swollen monstrosity. It’s not an amusing sort of monstrosity; it’s not even an appropriately nightmarish sort of monstrosity. It’s as if directors Graham Annable (making his directorial debut; he previously worked as a story artist on ParaNorman and Coraline) and Anthony Stacchi (one of three credited directors on Open Season) have accidentally hit on a style of animation that is the visual equivalent of chalk on a board.
It cannot possibly have been a deliberate choice to create a film that makes you want to look away from it. Can it?
See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of The Boxtrolls for its representation of girls and women.