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MOVIE REVIEW: THE BOXTROLLS

 

September 22, 2014

Those magnificent artisans of Laika are back with their latest production, THE BOXTROLLS. Taking a sliver from the beloved book "Here Be Monsters!" by Alan Snow, Laika CEO and lead animator Travis Knight together with directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Anable take stop-motion animation to new heights of visionary wonder as they bring the underground world of THE BOXTROLLS to life, achieving a film that is oh-so enchanting and charming thanks to eye-popping visuals, perfect voice casting and a fantastical story for all ages.

The Dickensian town of Cheesebridge is led by its mayor, Lord Portley-Rind, and his cabinet members. Collectively known as "The White Hats", they are the cream of the crop among Cheesebridge's elite. Obsessed with cheese over children's hospitals and even their own children, The White Hats have somewhat questionable values. Nevertheless, the town's local Fagin, Archibald Snatcher, wants nothing more in life to be a member of The White Hats. Sadly, he doesn't have the breeding or, in cheese terms, proper aging, not to mention being severely allergic to cheese. But Snatcher hatches a plan to insure his entry into the brie-tasting, rind-sniffing White Hats.

Nicknamed "the Trubshaw baby", the infant son of the town's local inventor goes missing one night. Snatcher sends out the alarm and fabricates the story that the child was kidnaped by THE BOXTROLLS, a funny little community of box-wearing creatures who live beneath the city. Crying "wolf", Snatcher strikes a deal with Lord Portley-Rind; he will rid the city of all Boxtrolls to keep the children safe. In exchange, Snatcher will be admitted to The White Hats. Deal. Trouble is, the infant wasn't kidnaped, he was, in fact, rescued by THE BOXTROLLS. But that doesn't stop Snatcher from spreading rumors of picked-clean skeletons and - perish the thought - emptied cheese reserves, which rumors only grow as the years pass and, in fact, become part of the town's annual celebrations!

Named Eggs because of the Egg box which he wears, Eggs is loved and adored, raised by all the little trolls, but with Fish truly becoming his "father". Because of Snatcher, THE BOXTROLLS are forced to hide under cover of darkness. Using their boxes as disguises, the rummage through trash bins and abandoned bags and boxes, collecting broken and outcast gadgets for repurposing underground to make fantastical things. This is the only world that our human changeling comes to know and as he grows up, he joins THE BOXTROLLS on their scavenger hunts above.

But one day, Lord Portley-Rind's daughter Winnifred spies Eggs and follows him. She is initially fearful of THE BOXTROLLS and fears for Eggs, realizing that he is the Trubshaw baby who was taken by them years ago! Wanting to rescue him, Eggs refuses. He doesn't need rescuing. Trying to explain to Eggs about families and fathers and that he is a boy and not a human falls on deaf ears with Eggs. While Winnie bemoans the awfulness that is her father ignoring her, Eggs only knows the love he has had from Fish and Shoe and the rest of his Boxtroll family. And once Winnie sees the underground home of THE BOXTROLLS, she needs no more convincing.

As more and more Boxtrolls start disappearing, Snatcher's braggadocios nature gets even more outlandish while the underground Eden gets darker and more dismal without the community to tend to it. And then the unthinkable happens. Fish and Shoe get captured by Snatcher. Eggs must save them but who can Eggs turn to now for help? The answer is clear - Winnie.

Can they bring the truth to light? Can they save Fish, Shoe and all the other Boxtrolls? And what about Snatcher? Will his evil-doings be discovered with him getting his cheesy rewards or will he get his White Hat?

When it comes to voicing, Knight, Stacchi and Anable knock it out of the park with the casting of Sir Ben Kingsley as Snatcher (and an alter-ego character as well). The obvious favorite amongst all, as Knight describes it, "It was very important for us that Snatcher was not a two-dimensional mustachioed twirling villain; that he had layers, that he had dimension. As awful as he is - and he is awful - that he still has vulnerability, he still has shreds of humanity left within him. . .But then the question is, 'Can he in any way be redeemed?'. And he can't but he makes that choice and it was important for us that we understand that this villain, we can empathize with him to a degree." Giving Snatcher life, the first thing that Kingsley determined was precisely who Snatcher is. "He's ambition. He's pride. He's vanity. He's delusion. He's addicted to power. He's socially inept. He is a man who is ill equipped, completely ill equipped to deal with rejection; and denial." With this in mind, Kingsley creates a very unique and indelible voicing for Snatcher by adding cockney vowels, "stretch[ing] those vowel sounds; started to put an "h" in a word where there shouldn't be one in order to sound "posh" (in full accent). You almost really see the voice bowing in subservience in a sort of Dickensian way like Uriah Heap." Determining Snatcher's voice to be similar to that of friend of his, Kingsley knew the sound he wanted, but had to work on achieving it. His own worst critic, he himself noted first efforts were "a bit thin. And I tried sitting down. And I said, 'You know what? I'm gonna have to lie down.' I lay down and [the voice] came from exactly the right place. Also, lying down stopped me making physical gestures. [What] we tend to do when we talk, we add, we augment, we do things with out bodies to underline what we're saying and the animators aren't interested in that. What good is that to them? They just want to hear. So the stiller my body was and the more relaxed it was, then it all started to come through the voice. Just a simple device. I've never used it before. I might use it again." The result is distinctive and emotionally evocative embodying the dregs that is Snatcher.

Playing on the strength that is Winnie, Elle Fanning is no stranger to the Laika family and process, given sister Dakota voiced "Coraline" and Elle was fortunate enough to go through the process years ago with her. Like Kingsley, Fanning defined who Winnie is when arriving at a proper voice. "Winnie is a 9 year old girl and her dad is the mayor of Cheesebridge. . .She's kind of the elite. She can be spoiled at times. I think the audience will probably want to not like her in the beginning because she's definitely bratty. But you get to see her sensitive side come out as the movie progresses and you realize that she just wants attention from her dad because he is too distracted with cheese. She's just trying to help Eggs realize he's a boy and not a Boxtroll. She means well. She's not mean-spirited at all. She's just a little spoiled." With that in mind, Fanning, the non-Brit among the major voice cast, adopts a posh upper-crust British accent that heralds independence and often defiance, making Winnie a perfect heroine.

A surprise voice is that of "Game of Thrones" Isaac Hempstead Wright who, as Eggs, brings all the fun and adventure of a young boy to the character while allowing us to hear childlike fear and glee. It's wonderful performance that captures the innocence of a child having been raised with love.

Supporting voice cast is equally impressive starting with Jared Harris as Lord Portley-Rind. Months ago I spoke with him about another film but he couldn't help but talk about THE BOXTROLLS, calling Lord Portley-Rind "extremely stuffy" and "fun to find a voice for". Scene stealing voice performances come from Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost who, as Snatcher's henchmen Mr. Pickles and Mr. Trout, respectively, are hilarious. (And make sure you stay through the credits for a fun "Easter Egg" with these two! Other brief, but notable voicings come from actors like Simon Pegg, Toni Collette, Laraine Newman, Jim Cummings and Tom Kenny.

Adapted for the screen by Irene Brignull and Adam Pava, the script only pulls a small idea from Snow's book. A major difference is that the character of Winnie is original to the film while Cheesebridge is an alternative to literature's Ratbridge. With dense plots points and emotional beats that are "an artful blend of darkness and light and intensity and warmth and heart and emotion and humor" there is a roller coaster of up and down where the joy and elation you feel by film's end is more powerful and staying thanks to the journey that precedes. Characters, both human and non-human are very human, which means they have flaws. Not shying away from tough subject matters, THE BOXTROLLS embraces the ideals of good and evil, family, love, friendship, bullying, class systems, even genocide but all done in a family friendly way with visual metaphor complementing dialogue and character structure. Giving Cheesebridge itself a more "steampunk aura" helps fuel the plot points and allow for that visual metaphor to explode. Important to producer/lead animator Travis Knight was that "we could layer on the metaphor and the meaning and how that plays into society as well. . .We want all members of the family to have something they can grasp on to."

The magic of THE BOXTROLLS is the stop-motion and the detail of hand-craftsmanship that goes into building and creating each and every character, building, cheese wheel. From the film's opening frame and a close-up of gold soutache braid on a bright red coat cuff belonging to Snatcher, you are visually spellbound. As with all three of Laika's stop-motion films ["Coraline" and "Paranorman" preceding THE BOXTROLLS], I myself watched with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, silently and sometimes not so silently, oohing and aahing at each new visionary wonder.

The individual Boxtrolls are beyond adorable with each cuter than the last. Be warned, Fish and Oil Can will steal your heart. Each has personality, a touch of whimsy. The anthropomorphic aspects and traits of each is undeniably rich and emotive while the underground world has a carnivalesque feel to it all set under a twinkling starry night sky. Up top, the Dickensian world of Cheesebridge is fully realized with skewed and tilted shapes and boxy structures with everything but for women's rounded skirts and wheels of cheese. With Laika, it's not just about making the puppets and stop-motion but pushing the envelope with action, showing us just what stop-motion can do. It's not just pretty detailed puppetry and sets. Everything is fully interactive.

Pushing the envelope creatively, one of the challenges the artisans of Laika met was that of designing the Boxtroll puppets with retractable arms, heads and legs. Also, eyes are now more reflective with emotion. As is the case with each film, Laika also develops new technology that allows them to dazzle us further with visual wonders. This time it's RP - rapid prototyping, the development of which allowed for the beautiful ballroom scene blending stop-motion with minimal CG with 360 degree dancing among multiple characters, making the stereoscopic 3D lensing even more dramatic.

Production designer Paul Lasaine creates a world of wonder with all 79 individual sets on every level while costume designer Deborah Cook again creates marvelous fabrications for costume design. Even Fanning marvels at the meticulous nature of Laika productions noting, "I feel like everyone needs to see how they make it because it's unbelievable! All these tiny little things. There's a miniature knitter and there's a tiny little lady and she just knits little mittens and sweaters for the puppets!" Unbelievable is right when you consider there are more than 20,000 handmade props.

Just to amaze you a bit more, THE BOXTROLLS was lensed with a total of 56 digital cameras including a Canon 5D, a Red live-action and 2 Sony HD cameras.

Completing the world of THE BOXTROLLS is the work of composer Dario Marianelli who marks his animated feature scoring debut here. Sumptuous and rich, even the score captures the elusive qualities of seeing the world uniquely from the eyes of a child or the eyes of an innocent. Adding some fun is Eric Idle who pens a few little numbers that add light-hearted humor to the musical proceedings.

Meticulous and magical. Playful. Brilliantly designed and executed. Stop-motion that takes the breathe away. One thing can be said for the artisans at Laika, they are never boxed in when it comes to imagination, storytelling and filmmaking. THE BOXTROLLS - flawless filmmaking built on heart and filled with heart.

Directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Anable

Written by Irene Brignull and Adam Pava based on the novel "Here Be Monsters!" by Alan Snow

Voice cast: Sir Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Jared Harris, Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost

 

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