All of the best comedies are subversive. And by that token, the new animated movie The Boxtrolls is a tremendous success — it takes the fabric of society and gleefully shreds it, showing how silly and easily manipulated most "decent" people are. Along the way, though, the film gets kind of heavy-handed, and a little too ugly.
I guess I'm of two minds about Boxtrolls — I admire its message, and enjoy a lot of its insane, clearly Monty Python-inspired silliness. On the other hand, I also felt kind of bludgeoned by this movie's lecturing and its piled-on grotesque aesthetic. It's definitely not in the same league as Laika's previous film, Paranorman.
There's no way to talk about this movie without spoilers, so here's your spoiler warning...
In The Boxtrolls, the town of Cheesebridge has a population of weird creatures living underneath it — but the Boxtrolls are harmless, recycling stuff they find in the garbage on the surface, and fixing broken gadgets. True to their name, the Boxtrolls live inside boxes, with their names being the label on the boxes they wear. One day, they adopt a human baby, who lives in an egg box and becomes Eggs.
When Eggs grows up, he believes he's a Boxtroll — but meanwhile, everybody in the town above believes that the Boxtrolls stole and ate the baby (instead of adopting him). So the townspeople hate and fear the Boxtrolls, and they empower the sadistic social-climber Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) to capture and exterminate the creatures.
Cuteness and weirdness
The movie's comfort zone is a kind of monstery cuteness, as exemplified by the Boxtrolls themselves, who have all the ingredients for adorability: 1) big expressive faces, 2) incomprehensible chittering dialogue, 3) total innocuousness and inability to fight for themselves, 4) affection for the orphaned Eggs, and 5) the ability to build lots and lots of elaborate cool gadgets. Whenever we're exploring the Boxtrolls' world or spending time among them, the film is pretty sweet
After Snatcher captures most of the Boxtrolls, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) is forced to go out on his own and try to sort things out — and that's when he meets Winnie (Elle Fanning), the daughter of the town's mayor.
A lot of the movie's cutest scenes involve Eggs and Winnie misunderstanding each other — Winnie is obsessed and thrilled with the idea that the Boxtrolls are gruesome monsters who eat people, and Eggs believes he's a Boxtroll despite all evidence to the contrary.
Eventually, Eggs has to "pretend" to be a real boy, and Winnie takes him in hand and tries to show him how to fit in in polite society — but he misunderstands basic things like what she means when she tells him to "shake hands" with people. (He just shakes his hands in mid air.) And he's surrounded by callous idiots who believe all the anti-Boxtroll propaganda and are controlled by fear.
When this film is playing it cute with grotesque touches, it's nothing particularly revolutionary — but it's fun and sweet. It's when Boxtrolls lets the grotesquerie pile up like a moldy cheese plate that it runs into trouble.
Revolting cheese allergies
Unfortunately for Snatcher's social aspirations, he's not just too low class and filthy for the ruling cheese-lovers, he's also allergic to cheese. So whenever Snatcher tries to prove to himself that he's worthy of joining the White Hats by eating cheese, he swells up revoltingly, with his lip blowing up like a red balloon and his face breaking out in pustules. At that point, his minions have to cover him with leeches to get the swelling down.
The somewhat disgusting metaphor — in which Snatcher wants to be something he's physically incapable of being — is contrasted with the plight of Eggs, who believes he's a Boxtroll but is actually a human (and can no longer hide inside his box, like a real Boxtroll.) Without giving too much away, the film's resolution depends on Eggs learning to embrace the fact that he's a Boxtroll-identified human, and Snatcher's downfall is partly due to the fact that he can never admit that he's unable to eat cheese.
In general, the character of Snatcher is relentlessly over-the-top in his grotesqueness (it's hard to overstate how gross the allergic reactions are) and meanwhile, his fear-mongering about the supposedly terrifying Boxtrolls is transparently insane — so the fact that adults take this guy seriously is part of what feels kind of heavy-handed, in the context of the movie.
And of course, Snatcher also has an alter ego — he randomly dresses up in drag and masquerades as a high-femme chanteuse who performs campy musical numbers about the menace of the Boxtrolls. All of the men in the film are in love with Snatcher's femme disguise, even as they despise the low-class Snatcher himself. In the context of the film's running theme of "people trying to be what they're not," it's a weird note to hit. I can see how it's just another layer of campy Monty Python-esque silliness in a film that's full of outlandish camp, but I also have a measure of sympathy with the people who find this transphobic. Partly because as a woman, Snatcher's femininity is represented as repulsive.
And it's especially weird that so much time is spent on the figure of Snatcher in drag, since this movie has no other major female characters besides Winnie. (While working on this review, I found out the book this movie is based on has a character named Marjorie the Inventor, who sounds great, and it's kind of sad she got replaced by another male character.)
The vertical city = social-climbing literalized
The other thing that's worth praising about Boxtrolls is its unique approach to space, especially urban spaces.
The visuals are mainly a kind of mish-mash of Steampunk/dieselpunk/gearpunk imagery, with the town of Cheesebridge existing in a kind of pastiche of the nineteenth century, with lightbulbs and toasters. But the town itself is imagined as a nearly vertical city, not just built on top of a mountainous peninsula, but with the buildings piled on top of each other. The town goes straight up and down, all the way to the sea.
And the underside of the town is the world of the Boxtrolls, which exists in a cavernous space that's also totally vertical. From the lightbulbs they hang in the "ceiling" of their cave to the floor far below, the Boxtrolls are far below the city, and the descent into their world is dramatized by the tallness of their space. The film's approach to space mirrors the preferred sleeping arrangement of the Boxtrolls themselves: piled up, inside their boxes.
And a lot of the best set pieces and sight gags in the film take advantage of the verticalness of the town and the depths of the Boxtroll world. The camera travels up and down the landscape with vertigo-inducing glee, and the flimsiness of human society is accentuated by the sense that humans are top of the heap, literally.
Snatcher's social-climbing is also shown to be actual climbing — he wants to reach the top of Cheesebridge, instead of being a bottom feeder whose job has to do with creatures from the depths.
And that vertical approach — thing piled on thing, until it teeters — isn't a bad metaphor for The Boxtrolls in general. This movie doesn't know when to stop piling things on, and that leads to some of its most delightful as well as its most annoying moments. And like I said, as a satire on human society — showing how dumb and easily manipulated most adults are — it's terrific. The film waits until the end credits to let Eric Idle, singing a song adapted from Pete Seeger, to tell us its ultimate message: the Boxtrolls might clothe themselves using our cardboard boxes, but humans are the ones who actually live in identical boxes and give up our individuality to a society that constantly trolls us.