These days, the idea of the Auteurist Studio, the group whose very name is a stamp of quality, vision, and depth, is probably closer to becoming mainstream than ever before. It probably started around Pixar’s mighty ascension to the throne of North American animation studios, a position it has held ever since. (By the way guys, wanna hurry up with The Good Dinosaur? People are getting worried.) And Marvel Studios, a group barely old enough to drink out of a big boy mug and watch Toonami, is trouncing major studios with such regularity, that those studios are visibly starting to panic. Laika, an animation studio famed for being the only mad bastards mad enough to still do stop-motion feature films, has been gathering a lot of attention and seem to be the next in line for the coveted Auteurist Studio badge.
While Laika’s first full-length film, Coraline, was generally well-recieved, I think a lot of people really sat up and took notice, myself included, with their last film, Paranorman. Now let’s get this clear: I fucking LOVED Paranorman. Not just because they made it bloody impossible for me not to identify with the main character, but also because of how refreshing I found its emotional honesty, rounded and interesting characters, and well-delivered message. So, when I went in to their new film, The Boxtrolls, it was with hopes so high, you could see the curvature of the earth by standing on top of them. Of course, this means that when I left The Boxtrolls somewhat disappointed, it’s hard to tell if it was because of Laika, or me.
The film takes place in the mythical town of Cheesebridge, the streets of which are haunted nightly by a group of creatures called boxtrolls: small troll creatures that wear boxes and collect old junk. When a human child is abducted by the boxtrolls, the villainous Archibald Snatcher uses it as a pretence to begin rounding up the boxtrolls in a bid for a place among the town’s governing elite. Years later, the child, now named Eggs, meets Winnie, the daughter of the town leader, and embarks on an epic quest to discover his humanity, rescue his kidnapped boxtroll dad, and put a stop to Snatcher’s… Well, snatchings.
Now, while I’ll admit up front (in the middle of the review) that I did like The Boxtrolls, pretty much everything it does well, Paranorman did better. While Paranorman’s hero had personality and charm, Eggs feels like a non-character in a film that really should be about him. Similarly, Winnie has almost no personality to her name besides a love of all things gross and gory, which feels so pasted on, that you can practically see the glue sticking out the sides. Sure, it’s nice that she has something that makes her unique, but it never really feels like a fully-realized part of her character, or something with an origin and a purpose in the actual story. We’re really meant to be paying attention to Snatcher, who comes off like a sneering Snidely Whiplash ripoff. Sure, his goals could be seen as a criticism of the pursuit of social status and prestige, but whenever you ask the film if it wants to explore that, by maybe giving Snatcher an interesting backstory or deeper motivation, it cheerfully replies, “No, but there’s this great bit about how he’s allergic to cheese, but still really likes eating it! Does that count as depth?” Everyone around the periphery feels similarly bland, even Snatcher’s cronies, voiced by Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost and Tracey Morgan, who routinely wonder if they’re actually the bad guys, almost as though some last-minute redemptive side-change is coming.
Everyone and everything just feels shallower than I would have liked, devoid of the interesting personalities and ideas that made Paranorman so great. Maybe I am making Paranorman into something more than it actually was, in my head, but that doesn’t change the fact that none of the characters or situations in The Boxtrolls really held my attention all that well.
Where it does stand out, at least, is the animation, which contains some of Laika’s best work yet, some of the best and most elaborate stop-motion ever put to screen. The animation is so good, in fact, that the film’s early trailers and one scene during the credits directly references how impossibly hard the animators worked to get everything looking the way it does. Everything is richly detailed and the movements are fluid and lifelike, to the point that it’s almost too good at times. Some scenes might as well have been CGI, for how smooth and precise it all is. I actually found myself wishing it had more imperfections and flaws at times to emphasize further the hand-crafted nature of the animation.
The Boxtrolls is a really solid family film; one I’d happily recommend to anyone looking for something to plop in front of their tykes to stop their screaming for a second, and that doesn’t make the parents want to start screaming themselves. But while Paranorman felt complex and interesting and emotionally honest, The Boxtrolls feels hollower by comparison. Not one of the characters is going to stick with me, most of the gags incited little more than a chuckle, and it feels more like it’s coloring inside the lines than its predecessor. It delivers more of what we’d expect, with fewer “Oh my God they did that!” surprises to anger uptight parents. It relies too much on cliches and stock characters, and comes across as more of a manufactured product than I had hoped. It wasn’t the movie I wanted it to be, and while that is a very personal criticism, I’ll remind you that when I talk about a movie, I talk about my own impressions of it, rather than feigning objectivity. I’m sure a lot of people enjoyed Boxtrolls and will continue to, but my enjoyment, for one, was tainted by the thoughts of what could have been.