The Boxtrolls (2014)

The stop-motion studio Laika has been one of the most peculiar and interesting things to come along in the world of animation in recent years. First, they made the surprise hit Coraline, based on Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name, which was highly acclaimed and praised for its unique style of storytelling. It was indeed the perfect strange fairy tale, with fantastic visuals and an atmosphere that was entirely its own.

Next up from Laika was ParaNorman, based on a completely original story. Although it wasn’t as big of a hit as Coraline, it was still an achievement, and if you ask this humble reviewer, ParaNorman is also the better movie, bringing an interesting new twist to old ideas and clichés, and having an overall eerie feeling which turns the film into a bizarre experience with a huge payoff at the end. I urge any fan of animation, fantasy, fairy tales, or just plain old horror tales to check it out.

And now comes Laika’s third movie Boxtrolls, and their second based on a novel. The story takes place in the Victorian-era city of Cheesebridge, which is led by very prim and proper old men easily recognized by their white hats, who take great pride in their annual cheese-tasting ball. They have a problem, however: no one dares to go out at night, because that’s when the Boxtrolls come out to pillage and plunder Cheesebridge, stealing everything in sight, including innocent tiny babies which they then devour. Or at least, that’s what everyone believes.

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Naturally, one of the first things established in this movie is that the common beliefs about the Boxtrolls are entirely wrong. They may be scavengers, and they may come out at night to steal objects they use to build their underground city, but the truth is they’re lovable creatures who are in fact extremely afraid of humans, so much so that they all wear old cardboard boxes that they can quickly hide inside.

Unfortunately for them, there are Boxtroll exterminators in town, who specialize in hunting them down one by one. The main exterminator is the delightfully disgusting Archibald Snatcher.

Our main character is a boy named “Eggs”, who was orphaned as a baby, with everyone assuming the Boxtrolls had stolen him away to eat him. But in reality, they took him in and raised him as one of their own. And now, ten-year-old Eggs believes he’s one of the Boxtrolls, and even wears a box of his own.

The Boxtrolls (2014)

However, his world gets turned upside down as his parental figure, a Boxtroll named Fish, gets captured by the exterminators, and it’s now up to Eggs to resurface among the humans, discover his own origins, find a way to save the Boxtrolls, and expose the secrets the city holds.

Like the two previous Laika movies, this movie excels in building a bizarre world that feels complete and entirely its own. The designs are crookedly bizarre, detailed, and an utter joy to look at. Many things in the movie feel purposely askew, and some images are eerie and disturbing; In particular, the villain Archibald is a ball of sheer disgust upon his first introduction, and he just gets worse as the movie goes on. They don’t hold back here, and his demise might be one of the most horrible villain comeuppances I’ve ever witnessed in a movie.

The Boxtrolls (2014)

Laika movies are indeed weird, but weirdness is something they’re masters of. And it’s a delightful kind of weird that indulges itself and immerses us completely in a different universe, making the movie feel timeless and something that ought to be recognized as an instant classic.

Many of the themes about perception and fear feel very reminiscent of ParaNorman, though this movie goes in another direction, with questions of identity, and finding out who or what determines who you are. The movie’s opinion of who the “real monsters” are is obvious, as we see the cute, funny little Boxtrolls being hunted down, and a human being who’s obsessed about becoming one of the white-hatted gentlemen while being completely disgusting, but the film never becomes too preachy about it.

All in all, Boxtrolls is an enjoyable ride, filled with bizarre small twists and visual queues. This is not your average animated movie that you can just sit the kids in front of so they can be quiet for a while. It’s the kind of movie we don’t get too often these days, and thus I highly recommend watching it and savoring it, if for nothing else than to support the continued existence of Laika, and so we can find out what bizarre ideas they’ll come up with next.

[—Editing/cleanup/revisions to this article provided by Dr. Winston O’Boogie and Elliot Hodgett.]

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  • This was released last week were I live. It didn’t do too well from what I saw and my brother complained his children (6 & 7) didn’t like the boxtrolls as they were too ugly so that could be something that hurts the film if the kids don’t like the character designs.

    You make the movie sound good and entertaining, so I may give it a try in the future.

    • Sofie Liv

      I can say for sure that are several of the scenes in the movie that would have freaked me out, A LOT, if I had been a kid.
      As an adult I can appreciate how the movie chooses to be deliberately croocked and bizzare, making this overwhelmingly moody bizzare atmopshere come out to soak in the audience, just walking its own pace giving us time to emerge into the univers.

      It’s much different from most kids movies, hell just movies in genneral today. But I can see how it would turn some kids off.

      Kind of like when I was in seeing “The wind rises.” which I found to be a very clever atmophsferic movie, I did witness a couple of children leave the cinema hall doing the movie and not come back.

      It’s not what animated movies usually sell these days, this is far less bright colourful fun and more like an old crooked expresionistic silent movie from Germany like “Nosferatu.” or “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligary.”

  • Muthsarah

    My impressions of the film’s previews were very disappointing. While Coraline seemed like an old kids’ story given an eerie, Nightmare facelift (whether or not it was an old story, it just felt that way, like something Dahl woulda done), and Paranorman was clearly targeted at an older, film-loving audience, Boxtrolls felt like a kids’ movie through-and-through, being sold as a kids’ movie. A little kids’ movie. I saw the trailers twice and haven’t given it a second thought since. And from your review, the only thing that seems to potentially fly in the face of this impression is the villain’s gruesome come-uppance. Gotta say, you’ve given this movie the best selling point since the Laika logo showed up that first viewing.

    Is there anything going on in the movie other than the tired “hey, kids, you really shouldn’t judge people before you know them…also, ugliness is subjective…and we’re all equal…and friendship is the most powerful magic of them all” stuff? Paranorman in particular got a lot of mileage out of the horror references, most of which flew over my head, though I’m perfectly happy with that, as I love watching movies that feel like they’ll improve on re-watching, discussions, and anything else that implies I might actually grow as a moviegoer as a result of this film, and that I’m not just being pitched the same ol’ bland softball every time. How much thematic, story-telling, originality is on display here? Or is it just-another-kids-movie, but with unusual visuals?

    I’d hate to shove this into the “rental” pile, following Paranorman as it does, but there’s nothing about this (aside from the villain’s newly-promised evisceration/crushing/dissolving/strangulation/death-by-low-atmospheric-pressure, in a KIDS’ movie) that’s getting me excited. I keep scrolling back up to that guy’s face and imagining all the things they could be doin’ to it. My imagination’s off running; I already feel bad for the guy. 😀

    • Sofie Liv

      You’re right.
      A big problem with this movie seems to be it neither hits the spot of being a childrens movie nor obviously targeting an older crowd, it just kind of sits there in the middle reaching neither, which is probably why it’s not doing so well.

      Which is really a shame because it’s a really good flick succeeding very well in becoming its own little thing making its own world.

      Actually the big theme of the movie seems. “It’s you whom decides who you are, the choice is yours.”
      The box trolls can all choose to be nasty creatures hiding in the shadows or come out of their shelf being something else.
      Eggs doesn’t have to be stuck in either of his origins, he can in fact just be “Eggs.”

      The white hats doesn’t have to be upper tight white hates, they have the choice to do diffferent, and even Archibald, gets the choice.
      Several times, he gets the choice to not be so obsessed over what is basically just a white hat anyway, and be his own person so he doesn’t have to walk in the shadows of the white hats.
      Yet it is his choice, which he keeps pursuing to the very last that will end up in his own demise.
      No one does anything to him, he does it to himself, it was his choice all along, and that seems to be what the movie is about, the power of choice.

      At least that’s what I got out of it.

      • Muthsarah

        “A big problem with this movie seems to be it neither hits the spot of being a childrens movie nor obviously targeting an older crowd, it just kind of sits there in the middle reaching neither, which is probably why it’s not doing so well.”

        Yeah, even this “Egg” looks like the sort of character that woulda creeped me out as a child. Laika seems to choose its art style to appeal to the older set who want something different from their animated films (smooth lines and Disney eyes), but the story here and the advertising both seem aimed at grade-schoolers. Laika needs to decide what kind of films they wanna make, and quickly. If they want to make kids’ films, surrender to conventionality and try to stay outta Disney’s way. If they want to make films for open-minded teens and savvy adults, get some stories that are less boilerplate. If they want to appeal to both, marry an eccentric billionaire and have them fund the movies, ‘cuz they’re not gonna make enough money at the box office. The only animated films that seem to have enough appeal to draw in kids, teens, and kidless adults alike are the established brands that can market the crap out of their films and make a mint off of selling toys.

        I like Laika, and I want them to stick around for a while. They’re easily the most interesting animation house the West has these days But they can’t be all things to all people. They’re not gonna make kids more open-minded, and they’re not gonna be able to sell animation as an artform to adults. Disney’s probably taken that as far as anyone’s going to for this generation, and the public is INCREDIBLY resistant to change; it also hurts that only certain types of films tend to do well internationally these days (the bigger ones, almost exclusively). If they keep walking this line, trying to make kids’ films that are attractive to teens, or teen films that are safe and fun for little children, they’re gonna end up as a blip on the radar, like Bluth. If this film really isn’t going over well, following the qualified success of Coraline and financial “disappointment” of Paranorman, they may no be long for this world.

        • Sofie Liv

          Question is whether Laika is even aiming for the big bucks, or if they are merely satiesfied making small movies that sticks out and is their own thing.
          Perhaps they are happy as long as the studio merely runs around, not to set upon making it big but just wants to make movies the way they do it.

          Which I can only respect, a lot!
          With so many studios these days aiming so highly on finding the next big box office movie, basing all of their decisions around money, this is extremely refreshing and admirable.

          If they wanted to play it safe, they had gotten for a more clean look after Paranorman only made what, half Coraline did.

          By now it should surprise no one that this movie appeals a lot to me as a person, it’s lots of things I love.
          Hell my favourite things are stuff like “Ni Nu Kuni.” “Doctor who.” “Pans Labyrinth.” “The cabinet of Calligary.”
          I love the feeling of a darker childrens book/story, which is colourful yet bizzare, so this appealed to me instantly from the moment I saw the trailer.

          How-ever, what i’ve come to realise over my time as a reviewer is that my own taste in entertainment is pretty unique and only very few share it as enthusiasticly as I do.

          It is very much a matter of taste, like I am not to much into Zombie apocalypse movies, not because I view them as bad movies just because it isn’t my genre.
          This audience for this sadly seems to be rather limited.

          And that makes me set, just having Laika merely excisting is a good thing in my mind.
          Doesn’t need to make it big, doesn’t need to be world influential, but just the fact that it’s there, putting out these small unique features, is a good thing.

          A pray they wont be broken, I want the studio to go on, I think it has so much to offer in the world of animation.

          Oh well.. wait and see I guess.

          • Muthsarah

            OK, having now seen it, I think I can agree with everything you said in your article up there.

            Except for this part:

            “his demise might be one of the most horrible villain comeuppances I’ve ever witnessed in a movie”

            HERE BE SPOILERS
            HERE BE SPOILERS
            HERE BE SPOILERS

            Like so many other parts of the movie, this was glaringly telegraphed less than 30 minutes in, and framed the villain as not just obsessed, but suicidally so. He had to have known his last action was gonna kill him, he just didn’t seem to mind. That was his reason to live, his only goal. He wanted to live those ten seconds like a lion, damn the consequences to him or to anyone else. If they had just given him what he wanted from the start, there wouldn’t have been much of an issue. He was both incredibly evil, and incredibly self-destructive. It all comes off more than a little unnecessary.

            THERE WENT SPOILERS
            THERE WENT SPOILERS
            THERE WENT SPOILERS

            He’s still a wonderfully rotten character, going WAY further than I woulda expected in a kids’ — in an AMERICAN kids’ movie.

            Which kinda feeds into that other wonderful little bit that made this film work for me – it did not feel like an American film. At all. It’s not just not-Disney, it’s not-Pixar, and not-Dreamworks. If anything, it’s closer to the daring, irreverent style I expect from teens’/adults’ cartoon series, like something on Adult Swim.

            That’s exactly the kind of fundamental curve ball I don’t get to see much in theatres. Even given Laika’s wonderful track record, I still go in with certain assumptions of where American animated films are and are not likely to go. This movie broke through those assumptions before it got halfway. Yeah, the movie’s skeleton was paint-by-numbers, but its meat was a rare thing. Totally not a pun, that. This felt like more of a British production (which is fitting, given the source), and not just because of the cast. It felt like Dickens in mood, Wallace and Gromit in heart, full of Brit-ful side jokes and quips and…well…not British, but its visuals felt more than anything like the deliberately(?)-garish French animation from Belleville Rendez-vous and The Illusionist. I’m still surprised they stuck with it, especially since Laika was probably really tempted to “internationalize” it to widen its appeal. I’m happy they didn’t, even if the previews and ads are promising something far blander than what the film actually delivers. This is the type of movie that could really throw families for a loop if they go in expecting another Pixar or Dreamworks, all bright colors and smooth lines, and general G-ratedness (this is NOT a soft PG), and cuteness and clunky puns and sight gags.

            It’s DIFFERENT, is my main point, and you can see that on every inch of this film. The good guys weren’t built for maximum cuteness, most of them don’t even talk, there are no lame pop songs, no pop-cultural references (at least not to this century, or most of the last one), and, aaaaaaaand….

            The film. Got. Daaaaaaaaaark. At times. Some really (relatively) disturbing scenes and images. Damn, this probably scared all the kids in the theatre. Got a couple of them to cry too. Love it when that happens. Shows that films aren’t afraid to challenge kids’ emotions, get ’em to grow up a bit on rewatch. And pays ’em back for talking so damn much. My audience felt mostly bored throughout the first act, but after that, the adults started to laugh more, and the kids started shutting up except when the movie become too much for them.

            It’s still a kids’ film overall, but there’s plenty here for the older set to enjoy. But…not for the littlest ones. Oh, Lord. Not for the littlest.

            Dunno how I’d rank it compared with Coraline or Paranorman. Clearly closer to Coraline as an overall production, but the animation’s a lot better, and there just seems to be more going on (more visuals and action and less suspense). Doesn’t seem comparable at all to Paranorman aside from the visual style, though it’s probably closer to it in audience appeal. Laika’s been very, very consistent with the quality of their films. Can’t say how this’ll place against Lego or Dragon 2 this year, but that it’s even in the running, means it was WAY better than I was expecting it to be going in. I am happy. 🙂

  • E-Bon

    I’ve really been looking forward to seeing this movie, I find Laika’s work fascinating.

    That reminds me, I need to pick up ParaNorman on DVD as soon as I can.

    • Sofie Liv

      Yes.. Yes you do.

      And yeah, whether you like Laika or not, that is something I think everybody has to agree on, their work is indeed… fascinating. heh X)

  • This actually sounds alright. I was expecting a well-animated distraction for kids. I need to stop doing that.

  • Oualawouzou

    Just saw it today, and I gotta agree with everybody who says whoever decided to market this movie primarily to young kids probably never saw it… There were loads of scenes I know my daughter would have found scary and creepy (and yet, she loves The Corpse Bride).

    Though it didn’t have the impact of Coraline (a movie I still regret not seeing in theaters), I found it better than ParaNorman, which struck me as not going quite far enough with its subject matter. This one doesn’t hold back. The only thing that bothered me somewhat was…

    [spoiler alert]

    the tired gag of men being disgusted when they discover the lady they were hot for was a man in drag. Laika showed more sensitivity about gender identity and sexual orientation in ParaNorman, to see them use that kind of gag surprised and disappointed me.

    [/spoiler alert]

    But all in all, it was an enjoyable trip into just-bizarro-enough-land, and I remain in awe at the craftmanship of stop-motion artists.

    • Sofie Liv

      When I saw the gag I must admit one of my first thoughts was. “oh boy, some one is bound to get angry at this.”

      Not me personally though, it kind of reminded me of old Monty Python sketches, and I think it’s important to keep in mind the film was NOT trying to put a mark on cross-dressers in genneral or paint them all as disgusting, this was solely about Archibalds character and had nothing to do with any other cross dresser.
      And Archibald just is mr. Disgusting, rivaling even the child snatcher from Chitty bang bang in who can be more disturbing by simple just be in the frame.

      Also I kind of enjoyed that musical number, I liked it.