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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Boxtrolls movie review: avert your eyes

The Boxtrolls red light

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): nothing

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.


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The Boxtrolls (2014)
US/Can release: Sep 26 2014
UK/Ire release: Sep 12 2014

MPAA: rated PG for action, some peril and mild rude humor
BBFC: rated PG (mild violence, threat)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • vfx_1138

    Wow, I’m actually really looking forward to this movie – I like ParaNorman and Coraline a lot, mostly because they are incredibly artistic visually, and bold in concept. From what I’ve seen, this is yet another visually incredible movie, and the story seems like a good vehicle, too.
    If you & I have seen the same imagery(we have), I think we can agree that we have completely different artistic sensibilities.
    I just hope that people don’t take your scathing critique too seriously.

  • Danielm80

    I’m so disappointed. I really enjoyed Laika’s first film, Coraline.
    Admittedly, the posters for The Boxtrolls made it look like a bad Saturday morning cartoon from the 1980s, but I had been looking at the steampunk costumes and architecture on the film’s website, and the production design looked really lovely. The character descriptions also sounded much odder and less boring than the people in other movies, and it seemed as though Elle Fanning’s character might actually have something to do. I wish someone had told the screenwriter.

    I guess I’ll have to watch the trailer for Hullabaloo again

    https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/hullabaloo-steampunk-animated-film

    or read the adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

    http://sydneypadua.com/2dgoggles/stories/

  • Danielm80

    I take her scathing critique as seriously as I take any other review on the Internet. It’s one opinion by one critic. In this case, she’s a critic I respect tremendously. Sometimes I even agree with her opinion.

    Most people reading this site know that there’s more than one review on the Web. If they trust MaryAnn’s judgment–on this particular film, on this particular day, based on her years of experience as a critic and her very subjective taste–they’ll listen to what she has to say. If they don’t, they’ll look for a reviewer with different artistic sensibilities.

  • RogerBW

    When was Ben Kingsley last in anything good? Shutter Island maybe? His name on a film is getting to be a warning sign, like M. Night Shyamalan’s.

  • Danielm80
  • Dr. Rocketscience

    #teamtrevor

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I don’t remember a time seeing Ben Kingsley’s name meant anything more than someone had offered o make Ben Kingsley’s next boat payment.

  • RogerBW

    I don’t remember a time seeing Ben Kingsley’s name meant anything more than someone had offered o make Ben Kingsley’s next boat payment.

    There are gradations. Michael Caine will act for anyone who pays him, but you always get the full Michael Caine experience, and he’s been known to salvage some dire films. Richard Burton would star in any old rubbish, but (especially later in his career) wasn’t good enough to make the bad stuff watchable, and the good directors eventually stopped employing him so his name became a warning of big-budget rubbish. I fear Ben’s falling into the latter style.

  • I loved *ParaNorman* and *Coraline* too. I mean, the links to my reviews are right there. So you could take that a sign of something or other. Maybe.

  • LaSargenta

    Turtle Diary. Schindler’s List. Death and the Maiden. Sexy Beast. And he wasn’t horrible as Melies in Hugo…

    Not that I’ve seen everything he’s ever been in, and not that I’ve liked every role he’s had…urg…Without a clue…ack.

  • Danielm80

    He was also on Garfunkel and Oates, probably my favorite TV series at the moment:

    http://www.ifc.com/shows/garfunkel-and-oates/blog/2014/07/garfunkel-oates-first-look-auditioning-for-ben-kingsley-can-nervewracking

    It’s definitely a flawed series, but I’ve turned into kind of a missionary for the show.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    You misunderstand. I’m merely saying that Sir Ben is, shall we say, less than discriminating in his choice of roles. That doesn’t mean he only appears in bad films, or that he’s bad in them. I actually think his phone-it-in mode is better than most actors’ go-for-the-Oscar mode.* I’m simply saying that seeing his name on a project says nothing about the quality of the film.

    * Contrast with Nic Cage, who has no phone-it-in mode. Only sublime and “Holy god, please someone feed Nic before he chews every last bit of scenery!”

  • But you haven’t seen the actual movie yet, right? So you really have no right to criticize her review until you do.
    Just because you want a movie to be good, doesn’t mean it will be good. Just like believing in something doesn’t make it true.
    It’s why I refuse to get too invested in any film nowadays until after some reviews come out. It doesn’t mean I may not enjoy a movie others might not have, but at least my expectations will be more realistic.

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