Movie Review

The Boxtrolls

GENRE

Drama, Comedy, Kids, Animation, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure

CAST

Voices of Ben Kingsley as Archibald Snatcher and Madame Frou Frou; Isaac Hempstead Wright as Eggs; Elle Fanning as Winnifred Portley-Rind; Jared Harris as Lord Portley-Rind; Toni Collette as Lady Portley-Rind; Nick Frost as Mr. Trout; Richard Ayoade as Mr. Pickles; Tracy Morgan as Mr. Gristle; Dee Bradley Baker as Fish, Steve Blum as Shoe

DIRECTOR

Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi

DISTRIBUTOR

Focus Features

IN THEATERS

September 26, 2014

REVIEWER

Adam R. Holz

Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 story The Jungle Book introduced us to Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves. The Boxtrolls, loosely based on Alan Snow’s 2005 story Here Be Monsters, introduces us to Eggs, a boy raised by subterranean trolls known for wearing boxes—hence their name, Boxtrolls.

The Boxtrolls live in the catacombs beneath the 19th-century, steampunk-style city of Cheesebridge. Each night, these sinister-seeming interlopers scamper surreptitiously out of the burgh’s manholes to plunder anything they can grab. But their purposes, it turns out, are innocently childlike. All they really want to do is construct really cool mechanical contraptions.

Innocently childlike, however, is not the way people in Cheesebridge view the “monsters” beneath. And that’s largely due to a robust misinformation campaign conducted by self-appointed Boxtroll exterminator Archibald Snatcher. Ten years earlier, he claims, the Boxtrolls snatched more than just bits and pieces of this and that: They snatched a baby boy!

And, Snatcher intones year after year, they ate him.

That’s the pretext for Snatcher’s plan to capture the Boxtrolls and eliminate them. It’s an ambition fueled by his obsession to become one of Cheesebridge’s elites—men who wear white hats and do nothing but eat cheese. (Never mind that Snatcher’s deathly allergic to the stuff!) He’s reached an agreement with the town’s aptly named mayor, Lord Portley-Rind: rid the city of Boxtrolls, get a white hat and all the cheese and prestige that comes with it. Helping him accomplish that plan are three lackeys named Mr. Trout, Mr. Pickle and Mr. Gristle, who do (almost) everything he commands.

Which brings us back to Eggs.

Eggs, you see, was not actually kidnapped by the Boxtrolls. He was certainly never eaten by them. Just the opposite, in fact. The kindhearted beasties raised the orphaned Eggs (so named because of the word Eggs on his particular box) as one of their own. And Eggs’ adoptive father, Fish, dotes on the boy as any loving dad would, mentoring him in the finer points of Boxtrollery, like grinding gears, grubbing grubs and grabbing garbage.

Does Snatcher or his dress-wearing, vaudeville-singing alter ego Madame Frou Frou care about any of that? Are white hats also black? But then something unexpected happens: Eggs meets a girl named Winnie, the precocious daughter of Lord Portley-Rind. It’s a serendipitous rendezvous, as Winnie proves a key ally in helping Eggs find and free his Boxtroll dad when Snatcher pulls poor Fish into his covetous clutches.

Positive Elements

Beyond Eggs and Winnie courageously confronting Snatcher (a notable thing in its own right), there are several other great lessons to be learned. One of those is about fatherhood. We watch Fish tenderly raise Eggs, doing things like finding a teddy bear for him and playing music for him on makeshift instruments. Fish represents surrogate fatherhood (actually, any sort of fatherhood) at its best: devoted, patient and attentive. Later, Winnie waxes eloquent about what makes a good father. He is, she says, “someone who raises you, looks after you, loves you.” Good fathers, the two kids know, always have time to listen, never get angry and carefully help guide your choices. Those qualities, it turns out, are an idealized composite of the father Winnie wishes she had.

More positivity comes from the growing qualms Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles have regarding whether they’re doing good (as Snatcher insists) or doing evil. Mr. Pickles opines, “Goodness always triumphs over evil, right Mr. Trout? I’m still 60-to-70 percent certain that’s us—a couple of good guys vanquishing evil.” Later Mr. Trout says, “This really does stretch the limits of the word hero.” When Winnie calls them “evil henchmen,” Trout’s shocked, saying, “That’s how people saw us?” Thus, he and Mr. Pickles eventually realize the error of working for Snatcher, helping Eggs and Winnie turn the tables on his tyranny.

Finally, the film lampoons selfishness, which takes several forms. Snatcher’s greedy quest for significance propels him to an explosive end. Meanwhile, Lord Portley-Rind is depicted as insatiably gluttonous, as he and his fellow white hats sacrifice everything just to eat cheese. Those kinds of choices are shown to be foolish and self-destructive.

Spiritual Content

The devil and Buddha are evoked in casual exclamations. More complex is a conversation (during the credits) between Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles. One asks, “What if our world is like a tiny speck,” after which he ponders whether there are “giants looking down on us” and controlling their every move. “I think it throws up notions of free will,” the other says, even as the camera reveals the animator working on the Claymation scene.

Sexual Content

Lord Portley-Rind and his white hats are naughtily infatuated with a shoulder-showing, husky-voiced singer named Madame Frou Frou. Her songs about the villainous Boxtrolls captivate the men. One of them says of her, “A lady like that is raw, dangerous, maybe a little stinky. But one taste and—” At a formal ball, men ogle her and slap her rear. When Frou Frou is revealed to be Archibald Snatcher, Lord Portley-Rind gasps in shock, blurting out, “Oh my god. I regret so much.”

Eggs elicits gasps from women as he crawls (innocently) under their dresses while trying to hide from Snatcher. After he dons an outfit Winnie has stitched up, Eggs scratches at his crotch a bit, prompting her to say, “You don’t scratch there in public. That’s why they’re called privates.” In similar territory, a group of Boxtrolls are shown sans boxes, and we see many of their bare, anatomically correct backsides before they put boxes on again.

The second song in the credits is “Some Kids” by Loch Lomond. We hear, “Some kids have a mother and a mother/Some kids have a father and a father/Some kids have no one at all/ … We should be glad for the families we have/And reach out to those who are on their own.” (Note that while the movie doesn’t directly explore the idea of homosexual parents, the filmmakers want that to be part of the way kids understand it. More on that in the Conclusion.)

Violent Content

Peril-filled slapstick violence fills The Boxtrolls, with all manner of pratfall-filled shenanigans befalling Eggs, Winnie and the Boxtrolls. More darkly, Snatcher is deadly serious about capturing and killing Boxtrolls. He kidnaps many, with Eggs and the remaining Boxtrolls believing their comrades have been killed. Snatcher also uses a huge robot to invade the Boxtrolls’ underground home and terrorize Cheesebridge.

Snatcher’s willing to execute all of the creatures he’s captured en mass with a crushing press. In fact, at one point he thinks he’s already done so. Later, he orders Mr. Gristle to drop Eggs (who’s disguised in a Boxtroll outfit) into the robot’s fire-belching engine. Mr. Gristle, in contrast to Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles, is as maniacally crazed as his boss and delights in inflicting pain.

There’s talk of “rivers of blood” and “mountains of bones.” Winnie thinks at first that the Boxtrolls would “slurp on my intestines like noodles.” Snatcher’s cheese allergy causes his face to swell grotesquely. His lackeys then use leaches (the first time) to reduce that awful swelling. [Spoiler Warning] The second time we see an explosion from a distance, about which Winnie later gushes, “Oceans of guts exploded upon us.”

Crude or Profane Language

One exclamation each of “oh my god, “good lord” and “what the …?”

Drug and Alcohol Content

None.

Other Negative Elements

For a little gross-out “fun,” we see the Boxtrolls and Eggs eat bugs in several scenes.

Conclusion

The Boxtrolls is little more than a lovable lark of a kids’ movie … that nevertheless demands not one but two conclusions.

Conclusion one: The Boxtrolls was created by the same production company, Laika Studios, that developed ParaNorman and Coraline. Trailers make it look like it has a just-in-time-for-Halloween Tim Burton-esque prank of a plot. And make no mistake, there is intensity and darkness here, mostly with regard to how hatefully the genocidal Snatcher persecutes the harmless Boxtrolls. And it also contains some decidedly adult innuendo when it comes to Madame Frou Frou.

But The Boxtrolls is much more than that. Courage and bravery and strong community connections all take a big bow here. And Fish, for one, couldn’t be a better father in the midst of a movie that delivers an inspiring, tenderhearted picture of what fatherhood should in fact look like. Namely, that a father’s job is to love, protect, nourish and nurture the children entrusted to him.

Which brings me, frustratingly, to my second conclusion: Connecting the dots between the gay-parents-themed lyrics of Loch Lomond’s movie-ending song and the film’s first trailer, which also dwells on the idea of children being raised by same-sex parents, we’re forced to reframe The Boxtrolls in a way we might not initially be inclined to do—but in the way its makers say they want us to.

In that trailer, the narrator tells us, “Sometimes there’s a mother. Sometimes there’s a father. Sometimes there’s a father and a father. Sometimes both fathers are mothers. … Families come in all shapes and sizes, even rectangles.” So are the out-of-the-box Boxtrolls used as out-of-the-closet parallels for the idea of having “unusual” and “not-so-mainstream” parents? Is The Boxtrolls really a sly stab at praising homosexual family structures?

Talking about the trailer and the film’s message, Laika Studios CEO Travis Knight told The Hollywood Reporter, “We’re not in any way trying to be activists. We’re just trying to be who we are. All art and all artists have a point of view, a way of looking at the world. We want to make films that are bold and distinctive and enduring and actually have something meaningful to say.” He continued, “The Boxtrolls are a very loving community that have been marginalized by the lies and distortions of others. It doesn’t take someone who’s got a Ph.D. to recognize that of course there are metaphoric elements to the message in our movie.”

And when you lay bits and pieces of the film’s dialogue out and look at them through that filter, you can see exactly what he means. “Off with the box!” Winnie tells Eggs at one point. And he bravely encourages his Boxtroll buds with, “No more hiding!” In a scene that zooms in on Snatcher longing to eat a hunk of cheese that may well kill him, Eggs tells him, “It won’t change who you are. Cheese, hats, boxes—they don’t make you who you are. You make you.”

It’s a message that can certainly be appropriated in several significant social and cultural ways as it links young viewers to issues of identity, acting different than “proper boys” and making choices to become people (Boxtrolls) of courage who face fear and stand up to oppressive bullies (Snatcher).

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