Review: The Boxtrolls (2014)

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Directors: Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi
Screenwriters: Irena Brignull & Adam Pava
Based on Here Be Monsters!, a novel by Alan Snow
Voice Cast: Isaac Hempstead Wright, Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning, Jared Harris, Dee Bradley Baker, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade & Simon Pegg
Runtime: 97 min // Certificate: PG

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2dFVnp5K0o]

2014 has, for the most part, been an execrable year for children’s cinema. The slurry of two-a-penny animations and live action rip-offs that children have had to endure in the periods between “Generic Marvel Extravaganza 27” and “Rootin-tootin’ Comic Book Adventure Sequel 12” has been positively shameful, and though a few notable exceptions do stand out, that’s all they are; exceptions.

It is therefore with a genuine sense of quite giddy relief that I feel able to report that The Boxtrolls – the third film from production company Laika, who were also responsible for ParaNorman and Coraline before that – appears, at least for the time being, to have broken that trend. It is by no means perfect – indeed, there’s actually a lot wrong with it, but in the wake of films like Escape from Planet Earth, Planes: Fire and Rescue and Postman Pat: The Movie, it feels like a breath of fresh air, not least because it understands its audience and doesn’t try to insult them by pretending to be “hip” or “modern” or *shudder* “down with the kids”.

Set in the town of Cheesebridge, the film tells the tale of the “Boxtrolls”, bizarre, nocturnal creatures who live in the sewers. The residents above have been led to believe that the Boxtrolls and vicious monsters who want to eat their children, though we quickly learn that this couldn’t be further from the truth. A human boy, Eggs (Hempstead Wright; The Awakening), adopted by the Boxtrolls as a baby, heads up to the surface one afternoon and befriends Winnie Portley-Rind (Fanning; Maleficent), the daughter of Cheesetown’s aristocratic leader, before stumbling upon a ploy by the town’s exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley; Hugo) to wipe the Boxtrolls out so that he can join the aristocracy and eat cheese with them, despite being violently allergic to it… no, seriously! That’s the story!

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The plot, the character names and the location should all give you some clue as to what we’re dealing with here. This is classic, bonkers children’s cinema, with all the fart jokes, cheesy (quite literally) emotion and lack of restraint that such a genre entails. It’s a shame that beneath all the chaos and the anarchy lies one of the most generic and predictable stories of the year, as it stops the film from ever achieving its true potential, but the fact it even tries is a step in the right direction. Unlike so many of this year’s children’s films, it is unafraid of its origins and, more importantly, unashamed of having fun. Furthermore, the stop-motion animation allows for some very specific laughs, not to mention a cuteness overload, while the film’s attempts to tackle some pretty major issues, such as adoption and, to an extent, genocide, are quite admirable.

Alas, though the individual elements of The Boxtrolls are all very commendable, the final package doesn’t come together quite as tightly as it should. It always feels like the film is trying to juggle too much at once, attempting to appeal to youngsters, teenagers and adults in equal measure, when a sharper focus on the first of these three groups would actually have done it the World of good. Similarly, the final act undoes a lot of the good work of the first hour or so, as this weird and wonderful tale descends into a predictable, action-heavy battle between Snatcher and the Boxtrolls. It’s all fine, don’t get me wrong, but it so often feels like it’s ignoring its untapped greatness, and that’s a shame because it could easily have matched Laika’s previous efforts with a bit more fine-tuning.

The themes might be generic, the outcomes might be predictable and the peril might be minimal, but The Boxtrolls at least tries to be unique, and that in itself helps it stand out from a good 90% of the soulless garbage that children have had to endure this year. It boasts some decent voice performances (though Hempstead Wright, who voices Eggs, is quite nasally and whiny, which is a little bit off-putting…), some marvellous animation and a marvellous sense of fun. It’s far from perfect, sure, but it knows how to have fun and in a year full of turgid duds like those mentioned earlier, that makes a very welcome change.

★★½

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