The following contains spoilers for The Boxtrolls. You have been warned.
Laika Studios wowed us with its latest, The Boxtrolls, this past weekend. We hope you had a chance to see it, and if you have, we hope you’ll jump into the discussion with us. With me to talk about The Boxtrolls are Gabriel Urbina and Erik Paschall.
Tim: Ok, time to talk about The Boxtrolls, which we all got to see together. My thoughts are already known, let’s get baseline reactions from both of you.
Gabriel: My thoughts were fairly in line with yours, Tim. I love this style of animation, and I just thought that practically every sequence in the film was a joy to watch. The designs were beautiful, the character models were outstanding, and the choreography of what they did in multiple scenes was mind-boggling. I have some slight sticking points with the film’s story work, but as a technical achievement I was blown away.
Erik: I agree. But if I’m going to add to that, I also loved the characters – not just how they looked or were animated, but I thought the writing and performances behind them were top notch. In particular, Ben Kingsley’s villain Snatcher, I thought was one of most interesting animated villains I’ve ever seen. Also, Elle Fanning’s Winnie was surprisingly hilarious in most of her scenes – and animated films don’t always use female characters as the outlet for comedy.
Tim: I was going to ask about Winnie specifically, so I’m glad you brought her up. I definitely want to dig into that more, but let’s circle back there and kick things off with a bit more on the technical side of things. Gabriel, I mentioned this in my review, but I thought it was so funny that, after your editorial on stop motion animation, this movie seemed to work so hard to undermine some of the conclusions you were drawing. I really think it’d be hard to look at this film knowing nothing about it beforehand and immediately say it’s stop motion. It’s animated so smoothly and the colors and lighting are so vibrant, it defies the sort of visual you think of as characteristic of stop-motion animation.
Gabriel: Yeah, leave it to the mad geniuses at Laika to basically push the envelope so hard that it starts to look like something totally different. It’s true – if you just dropped someone into this film without any knowledge of what the animation technique was, they might easily just think that it was a funky kind of 3D computer animation (which may be why they’ve been leaning so heavily on the behind-the-scenes techniques in their promotional material for the film). But even if it doesn’t have some of the surface-level visual traits of stop-motion, you can’t deny how physical and lived-in everything in this world looks. Everything just has so much weight to its movement, no matter how smooth they’re able to get it, and in a film like this, it adds so much. Erik mentioned the film’s character work a second ago – I think something like that’s even more impressive when half of the characters are creatures that don’t have English and are built totally out of body language, and that’s the kind of thing where the physicality of stop motion really shines through.
Erik: Actually, speaking of the physicality, I’ve read quite a few reviews and articles that mention the opening sequence of the film (the one with barely any spoken dialogue), comparing it to both Wall-E and Up – both in a good and bad sense. Good in that it’s been called masterful wordless storytelling. Bad in that some say they would have preferred the film had stopped after the beginning and existed just as a short film (I saw several people saying, and some continue to say the same about the two aforementioned films).
Tim: Far and away my favorite five minutes or so of the movie, but I can’t imagine that existing in a vacuum. Just because the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to that standard doesn’t stop it from being a perfect setup in my eyes.
Erik: I agree. Besides I prefer, above all else (special effects, behind the scenes production, visuals, and even stories) characters. My favorite parts, personally were the exchanges between the people that made up this odd world – particularly Snatcher and his cronies. I swear I’m not trying to direct this conversation away from technicals, it’s just where my mind goes.
Tim: No, let’s go there. What was it about Snatcher that was so compelling for you?
Erik: On the outset he seems incredibly one dimensional, but over time, as you learn more about him – through a great combination of voice, dialogue, and body language (i.e. animation) – he’s got a surprising amount of depth. In his own mind, he’s the hero of the story, and not in the typical self-righteous-villainy way, where the bad guy thinks they’re making the world a better place by killing tons of people. No, Snatcher is completely selfish, but he sees himself as the victim, and he’s overcoming his victimhood.
Gabriel: Absolutely. They do a great job of fleshing him out, especially once you learn more about his plans and his reasons for doing what he does. The thing is, even though his methods are horrifying, his basic goal is totally sympathizable, even a little pathetic in how small and not megalomaniacal it is. Throw in the horribly ironic twist that he’s allergic to the cheese that he craves so very much… they definitely didn’t just stick a stock bua-ha-ha-ing villain into this.
Tim: This is going to dive maybe a little deeper into the story construction end of things than some might find interesting, but I loved how effective the little symbols were throughout this movie. They don’t point to anything of huge significance. But Snatcher wants to trade in his red hat for the white hat of an elite. He wants to enjoy cheese because that’s what the elites do. We’ve already mentioned the opening sequence, and in that music becomes the representation for the growing relationship between Eggs and Fish. Even the Boxtrolls’ personalities conform, in small bits, to their boxes.
Erik: And in terms of symbolism, I think the fact that Snatcher’s a crossdresser shows how much he hates his lot in life and how he’ll become another person, another gender even to escape from it.
Tim: Even that, though, is with a particular goal in mind. Snatcher’s not crossdressing for escapism – although I won’t deny he seems to kind of enjoy being the center of attention as Madam Frou-Frou – he’s doing it because he sees it as another way to ensure he’ll rise in society, be respected, be accepted.
Gabriel: Yeah, that’s the sense that I got out of it. More than any kind of goal unto itself, the cross-dressing, the pest-control, even the cheese-eating was all just a part of his goal to find himself in that inner circle of the Cheesebridge society. I think that’s where it tips a little bit away from the relatable and the sympathizable and more towards the villainous end of the spectrum. That and, you know, all the evil plans.
Erik: Clothes themselves and how they alter a society’s perception of someone seemed to be a big theme here. Along with the white hats and the lady’s clothes on Snatcher’s side, you’ve got Eggs and the different outfits he has to wear. There’s his box he has wear to be a Boxtroll, his initial “human disguise” when he first goes out into human society, and the fancy dress Winnie makes him put on to attend an upper-class human party.
Tim: Absolutely. And with that, we’ve also arrived back at Winnie. I liked the character, but Winnie was also at the nexus of some of my biggest, “WTF was that?” moments in the film. I mean, this girl is bloodthirsty!
Gabriel: Hehe, I really liked Winnie, and the bloodthirstiness kind of went into that. I definitely liked her as a heroine, especially a heroine with a lot of comedy to her, but I liked her writing even better when it came to portraying her as actually a kid. I don’t get convinced by a lot of children in films, especially when they’re the good guys, but Winnie reminded me a lot of children that I know or have known. She was brave in the right moments, afraid of the right things, just the right kinds of out of control and defiant, and into all kinds of gross and dark stuff just because she knows well enough that she shouldn’t be. She actually reminded me a lot of Lilo from Lilo and Stitch, which is another of my favorite kid characters in terms of her writing and her believability.
Erik: I think perhaps her “bloodthirst” was a way to highlight another theme, which is the obvious, “Everyone can be a monster, not just the literal monsters.” It’s a theme that’s been seen before, but I thought with the addition of Winnie, it gave a slightly different twist on it. It shows that someone can be monstrous in a more benign sense. Sure you’ve got the straight-up villainy that is Snatcher, the savagery that is Mr. Gristle (probably my favorite Tracy Morgan role), but you’ve also got a simple fascination with the macabre that doesn’t imply any actual violent tendencies – much like the title character of another Laika production, ParaNorman. If Winnie was a modern day kid, she’d probably be like Norman and have a room full of monster memorabilia and horror movie posters.
Gabriel: Beautifully put, Erik. Yeah, she acts the most like the stereotypical idea that we’d have of how trolls and monsters would act, and that still doesn’t mean that she’s in the wrong. The movie’s morals are a bit more mature than that. And now that you’ve brought up ParaNorman, that opens up the door to the only part of this film that felt a bit underwhelming to me. Coming into this film from Coraline and ParaNorman, my expectations were very, very high. In terms of the technical design and the character work, I was totally satisfied. But when it comes to the story, I’ll confess that I was expecting something a little more tricky up Laika’s sleeve. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with what they did put in the film, I just felt that it was a little bit simpler and more predictable than what they’d offered up in the past. I was constantly guessing what would happen next in ParaNorman only for the film to go in a totally different direction and pull the rug out from under me – that happened at least three times in that movie. Here, I had a pretty good idea of what the trajectories were going to be pretty quickly, and most of the “twists” (what happened to Eggs’s father, or how the Boxtrolls survived Snatcher’s crusher of doom) I was able to just figure out pretty quickly. Did either one of you guys feel like you could just see everything that was coming from a few miles away?
Tim: I didn’t predict that Eggs’s father was still alive, but as soon as we saw him in Snatcher’s dungeon, I knew immediately who he was. Yeah, the plot as a whole is pretty well put together but very recycled. It is a “boy raised by wolves” story, and we could probably rattle off half a dozen of them without even thinking about it.
Erik: Yeah, the only things surprising about the film were the characters and visuals. I could see all the story beats coming a mile away. Yet, while I understand if that bothers someone, it wasn’t a problem for me at all. For me a story doesn’t need to be fresh or original as long as it’s done well. It’s the reason I like action movies (martial arts films in particular) even if they have plots I’ve seen ad nauseam (and they typically do), if the action is well choreographed, the special effects are decent and the characters are interesting. That’s how I thought about Boxtrolls, in a sense. It wasn’t necessarily something I haven’t seen before, but it was well enough executed so I still enjoyed it while it was unfolding before me.
Gabriel: That’s totally fair. Again, this wasn’t something that derailed the film for me, and I absolutely agree that… even if I have seen these elements before and can recognize them in this combination, I definitely haven’t seen something that executes all of them so well and so beautifully in a very long time. It at most affected my enjoyment of the film at about five or six different points, but when a film is firing so well on practically every cylinder, I just wish that it had been able to throw at least one genuine surprise my way with its plot.
Erik: There’s one other thing (minor to most I’m sure) that made me happy: Dee Baker and Steve Blum, two professional voice actors (see the video above) and the voices of the two most prominent Boxtrolls, Fish and Shoe, got pretty high billing in the end credits. Usually all the voice over guys and gals, when paired with big name stars, get shoved to back credits wise – see the Transformers franchise for proof.
Tim: All the more significant considering that, though the Boxtrolls speak, they don’t speak English. Yeah, it really seemed like everyone involved treated the Boxtroll characters as the equal of any human character, and I think that gave the movie a lot of energy.