Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls is a visually elaborate fantasy that is built on an extremely weak foundation.  While the art direction, cinematography and animation are excellent, the story is deeply flawed and the direction isn't able to overcome the holes in the story.

There are spoilers coming, so be warned.

The town of Cheesebridge has a class system indicated by the colour of a person's hat.  While the hat is hardly a great idea, I'll let it go as it's a convenient way of visually establishing status.  The problem is that a class system only has dramatic weight when it's clear how low status affects a person's life; the lower class needs to be treated poorly by the upper class in order to motivate the film's villain.   What do we see as the difference between classes besides the colour of hats?  The privilege of tasting cheese.  I have not read the source book, Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow, but even if this idea is from the book, it is flimsy at best and too reminiscent of Wallace and Gromit.

The boxtrolls themselves are also unmotivated.  They eat bugs, so their physical survival is guaranteed from a nutrition standpoint.  But they spend the nights foraging in people's trash bins for various mechanical bits.  Why?  While their home cavern is full of mechanical doodads, they don't seem essential to the boxtrolls' existence.  If this is what they do, why not make it necessary for their way of life?

While fantasies require a leap of faith, it still helps to be as consistent as possible within the rules of the world.  Unfortunately, the film falls short here as well.  Why would the boy raised by the boxtrolls speak a human language instead of theirs when he has no contact with humans?  The boxtrolls are naked beneath their boxes.  Why is the boy wearing clothes and a too-small box?  The villain has a food allergy that causes his face to swell to grotesque proportions.  How could he not be aware of this when it happens repeatedly? 

The villain's plan to demonize the boxtrolls and then eliminate them seems enormously complicated and takes a decade to enact.  Surely, there had to be a better and faster way to raise himself into the upper class.  Why should the townspeople believe that he's destroyed all the boxtrolls just because he dumps a pile of crushed boxes in front of them?  If they do believe it, why is it necessary for the villain to kill the last boxtroll in public?  Why does the villain need the large machine he rides in for the climax?  What motivates the villain to be a cross dresser?  Or is that just a result of Laika being praised for the gay character in Paranorman?

With the exception of a girl character, the film has no other females developed to any degree.  That includes the boxtrolls, who seem to be asexual.  Does a boxstork deliver them?

The film ends and ends and ends and ends.  Instead of wrapping things up neatly, the film makers don't know when to get off the stage.  

I have seen all three of Laika's films and this is definitely a step down from Paranorman.  While this film has potentially strong themes of class, race and even genocide, it treats them so superficially that they are missed opportunities.  The film is visually inventive and, truth be told, the stop motion is so slick it might as well be cgi.  But the artists at Laika fell in love too quickly with the visual possibilities of the story without nailing the dramatic backbone.

I know that there is a bias against scripts in feature animation.  The conventional wisdom says that stories should be drawn, not written.  However, there's a lot to be said for working on an outline to structure the story, work out the plot points and clarify the motivations before any designs are done.  Drawing is sometimes a distraction; the appeal of a good design can sometimes draw attention away from holes in the story.

While all of Laika's films have been visually attractive, they have yet to have a major hit.  My limited knowledge of their income leads me to believe that if it wasn't for the Knight millions (or is that billions?), the studio would have gone bankrupt by now.  Laika has a deal for another three features so it isn't going away anytime soon, but I'm sure everyone would be happier if a future film would gross Pixar-like numbers.  Without serious attention to their stories, it's never going to happen.


GW said...

The town's name of Cheesebridge and presumably the cheese tasting as well were made up for the film. I haven't read the book so I'm just guessing. You're right that the social classes aren't very well developed and that really weakens the movie.

One of my questions is why did the townspeople warm up to the boxtrolls if they stole their stuff? I'm thinking particularly of the wagon wheel that one of them took.

I have an answer for one of your questions. It was necessary to kill the last boxtroll in public because it helped bring the public on his side which was instrumental in him getting a white hat.

The biggest thing I noticed is that the class issues never get resolved. Winnie's dad never gets any nicer and Snatcher's lackeys are content with their limited class status at the end of the film.

Ccs said...

It's billions. The guy's father created Nike.