Hey, I’ve admitted it before. I’m a Modern Man, I can dig on the cartoons sometimes. But I don’t always gotta go public about it. For example I didn’t need it on record that I thought FROZEN continued the evolution of the Disney Princess formula in smart, pro-girl ways. The rest of the world took care of that, I didn’t need to say anything. Stoicism. But I just saw THE BOXTROLLS which was amazing and I don’t trust the rest of the world to make a big deal about this one, so here I am.
THE BOXTROLLS is the third movie from Laika, the stop motion studio out of Oregon who did CORALINE and PARANORMAN. Because of modern technologies like motion control, digital photography and now 3D printing this artform keeps getting more detailed and sophisticated, yet it has a very old fashioned charm to it. It’s all about the tactile and the textured. It’s puppets moving around on elaborate model sets. You can see the fabrics and stitches on the clothes, the brush on the paint. I like how you can see that the eyes are a hard, shiny material under the rubbery skin. That the eyelids look like separate pieces. I like computers, but this shit has an appeal that computers can’t re-create.
There’s an astonishing amount of detail in the characters, settings and props. It takes place on dirty cobblestone roads, in caverns full of salvaged junk or opulent homes throwing formal parties, often with crowds of characters in the shots and you don’t really think about it at the time but how the fuck do they manage to move all of them and keep track of what they’re doing? There’s so much great filmmaking here, all built in miniature. Dramatic uses of lighting, and really atmospheric smoke and fog that we gotta assume was done using the computers, unless they were able to freeze smoke and fog in time as they moved it around for each frame. I don’t know if they can afford that or not.
It’s not surprising that it’s incredible to look at, though. The mistake I made is the same one I did with PARANORMAN: assuming it wouldn’t be anything special otherwise. It turns out this is a great little fantasy story in a unique world. It reminds me a bit of Jean Pierre Jeunet or somebody like that, not that much of other animated movies. Maybe a shade of THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE and WALLACE AND GROMIT. It takes place in Cheesebridge, a Dickensian mountain village controlled by a self-absorbed upper class obsessed with eating fancy cheese and completely ignorant of the economy or their responsibilities as city leaders.
Archibald Snatcher, the grotesque owner of Red Hat Exterminators, dreams of wearing one of their white top hats and eating cheese with them, even though he’s dangerously allergic. That status is more important to him than not having his face puff up like the Toxic Avenger. So he makes a deal with the useless Town Council that he can be one of them if he rids the town of “Boxtrolls,” muttering little gremlins that hide inside cardboard boxes and which he has accused of being baby eaters.
We learn that that’s racist bullshit. These guys are cool. And one of them, we notice, is a human baby. As he grows up we find out about his background and he tries to stop Snatcher from killing his people. He’s kinda like the Last of the Mohicans or John Avatar or somebody.
The weird culture and traditions of the Boxtrolls are explained in a long, excellent sequence with only a few words of English dialogue. They start out as creepy, glowing-eyed ghoulies scurrying around in the shadows, but then we see where they live, eat bugs, build jerry-rigged inventions, etc. In fact they’re the anti-gremlins, now that I think about it, because instead of breaking things they build them. And instead of multiplying when they get wet they don’t multiply when they don’t get wet.
Of course Snatcher is more of a problem to the city than the trolls are. Man, look at this stringy haired jerk:
Not all of the surface dwellers are assholes or morons, just most of them. The head of the town council has a daughter who sees the Boxtrolls out her window, thinks they’re a threat and tries to do something about it. But she quickly figures out what’s what and is sort of the hero of the movie. Design-wise she’s also unusual because most of the men are either gangly beanpoles or fatties. She’s thin but has chubby little hands like a little girl. Like Shirley Temple maybe.
It’s also got some good laughs without feeling like the same kind of jokey that most of the computer animated ones are these days. It’s a little more of a dry British type of humor, including some satire about class differences. Plus some grossout parts. But no pooping though. The council head at one point boasts about Snatcher’s success in lowering the Boxtroll population while also noting that some citizens have complained about the bridges falling apart. He’s too stupid to notice that he’s killing the beings who actually maintain the infrastructure. He’s like the people who vote for every tax cutting initiative that comes to them and then complain when their local park or library is closed or their freeway overpass collapses and they die horribly while not knowing that they did it to themselves, or whatever.
This movie does a good job of making fun of the fucking rich people, and I like that. But also I want to praise a certain type of rich person. We tend to focus on the ones who don’t give a shit about us, or who exploit us, or seem to go out of their way to make the world shitty for everybody else. But also there’s some of them that are cool, that try to do good or fun things with their money and power. On one block in Seattle we have the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation trying to combat global poverty and the Experience Music Project and Sci-Fi Museum trying to make sure I get to see the Queen from ALIENS and Teddy from A.I. close-up. (One time I got to go to the opening of a horror exhibit there and ended up sitting next to Eli Roth in a little booth talking to him about SUSPIRIA while a screen was showing a featurette with him talking about SUSPIRIA.) In Hollywood they have Annapurna Pictures, the production company started by a billionaire’s daughter who has good taste in movies and uses her money to get movies made by directors she likes such as John Hillcoat, Paul Thomas Anderson, Andrew Dominik, Kathryn Bigelow, Harmony Korine, Spike Jonze and David O. Russell. Or there used to be George Lucas independently making his expensive “Star Wars Presents the Clone Wars” cartoon and selling it to a network after the fact. (When Star Wars was bought by a giant corporation they cancelled the show mid-season and replaced it with a cheaper one.)
We movie appreciationists are forced into worrying about if a movie we love flops then that director won’t get to make his next one, or accepting that big budget movies can never be made primarily for people over the age of 17, or that some of our favorite directors will never be allowed to make their dream projects because a studio will think it’s not commercial enough or something. So it’s precious when some crazy passionate person of money decides to get behind something for non-business reasons. Despite business reasons.
Laika is another example of one of these rare, beautiful cases. The CEO of the company is Travis Knight, son of the CEO of Nike. In fact, while researching this review I learned that there is a tie-in limited edition (I gotta assume) Boxtrolls Nike.
But this CEO is not just some rich dude in an office, he’s a stop motion animator (a lead animator on this one – what other CEO does that?). Their movies are expensive and they haven’t had a big hit yet, but at least for the time being they’re gonna make these movies.
Another thing about that. If you saw PARANORMAN you might remember the surprisingly casual inclusion of a very gay-positive character. It’s terrible that just showing that gay people exist is kind of subversive in a family movie, but here we are. THE BOXTROLLS doesn’t have anything like that (in fact I’m sure some sensitive person would find some jokes about a male character in drag to be bigoted) but on the end credits there’s a very upbeat kiddy type song that mentions different types of families including ones with two moms or two dads. And I gotta admit I felt my eyes getting ready to water for a second there, because it caught me off guard. I thought about families I know like that and that their kids are coming into a world where more and more people will accept them. It’s happening too slow, but faster than it used to seem like it would be. Also that girl from My Two Dads would’ve probly appreciated a song like this back in the day, woulda made things easier I’m sure.
I think there’s a good chance that most people at Disney like the gay people. But I also can’t imagine them in the near future putting a song like this in one of their movies, or having a character like the one in PARANORMAN. It doesn’t matter what they think, being openly accepting of gay people could be a business liability because obviously there’s gonna be a bunch of assholes out there that are gonna think they’re getting cooties from watching it and will threaten to boycott or whatever. The fat cats/big wigs/execs would think tolerance was bad business so they wouldn’t be able to do it.
So I just think it’s cool that this Nike kid is making movies in a medium considered uncommercial and putting in positive messages like that. He’s rich enough that he doesn’t care if that’s a business liability, he knows if somebody doesn’t like it they should go do a fun game where they lay on their back and try to piss straight up.
And Laika have their own path, they’re not copying what the other people are doing, not even the same medium. So far their thing has been family friendly movies with elements of monsters or horror, but each one has had a very different design style. What ties them together is just the amazing craftsmanship on screen. And you know how Pixar had that tradition for a while of animating fake outtakes and putting them in the credits? The Laika credits tradition is a time lapse shot that shows how much work goes into this type of animation. For this one they came up with a really brilliant and funny way to do it. Definitely stay for that.
I hope nobody’s trying to take Travis Knight’s white top hat away. I want him to keep making movies like this for a long time. I’m sure he’ll keep going as long as he can afford it. Good for him. Just do it.
Additional reading: This sad story about how “California Raisins” guy Will Vinton lost his studio paints Travis Knight’s ascension to CEO as blatant nepotism, and also makes fun of a brief rap career he had under the name “Chilly Tee” when he was in his 20s. But it also says that despite a short track record he had become an “astonishing” animator and “one of the best in the business.” I bet it’s pretty accurate, but whatever happened the end artistic result has been successful. It would be a funnier story if Chilly Tee became the CEO and made FOODFIGHT!.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.