Mr. Horne's Book of Secrets

Netflixing: The Boxtrolls

This post was originally published at my account on Steemit.com.

 

Watching an entire TV series takes a lot of time, and this would keep me from doing reviews as frequently as I would like. Thankfully, Netflix also has a large library of movies to offer. So, as a way of branching out, I will be reviewing those from time to time, as well.

But I do have one rule: it must be a movie that I missed in theaters and watched for the first time on Netflix.

Without further ado, let’s talk about The Boxtrolls.

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The Animation Studio

Laika Entertainment is a production house that specializes in stop motion animation movies. In the past, they have produced such critical hits as Coraline and ParaNorman.

The studio has received high praise for its commitment to stop motion animation as an art form, which for a long time had been seen as a dying art. With intricate setpieces, character models, and props, all lavishly worked out to the smallest detail, the craft put into each Laika feature is staggering, to say the least. This is a studio run by artists, and their love of the art form, with an attention to detail coupled with a grand overarching vision in each movie, have set them apart from a lot of the humdrum fare we find in more mainstream animated films.

They should be congratulated for what they have been able to achieve.

The Look of The Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls is Laika’s best-looking movie, as far as visuals are concerned. Their previous films, and even the upcoming Kubo and the Two Strings don’t exhibit the same level of finesse and detail.

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Given a Victorian setting, the sets are decked out in fine furniture and hand sewn draperies. The clothing worn by characters is all real, and every facial expression was uniquely sculpted into a mask for the moving dolls, and few of those masks were ever used more than once.

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The overall effect is perhaps the most lifelike animation ever put to film, made even more astounding when you consider the hundreds of thousands of hours put into making the relatively short runtime of the movie.

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Some computer-generated effects were used, to make realistic fire, as well as include some counterfeit “extras” into scenes with large crowds, but these CG graphics blend in so seamlessly with the real-world puppetry that it’s hard not to admire them as an accomplishment, as well.

Where It all Falls Apart

Unfortunately, the visuals—peerless as they may be—are the only thing this movie has going for it. Everything else is a mess. The story is sloppily edited. The characters are bratty and unlikeable. The jokes are flat and trite. For all the effort that was put into giving this film visual depth, the heart of the experience is shockingly shallow.

Perhaps we should examine some of these disappointments in detail.

The Boxtrolls Themselves

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It’s strange to consider how these creatures barely appear in their own movie. Yet there it is.

The title characters’ only contribution to the film, other than some quirky comic relief, is the fact that they encounter the human protagonist, a boy named Eggs, as a baby and raise him as their own. After that, they serve as a collective damsel in distress for Eggs to go off and rescue, as he explores the hazards of the surface world, populated by other humans.

Filling the typical role of the nonspeaking, nonhuman sidekicks, they should have been the emotional heart of the film, with the endearing charm of R2-D2, or Pascal from Tangled. Instead, they are bland, greyfaced golems, with little to distinguish any one from the others. They could have been entirely absent from the film without changing its tone, story, or message.

The Heroes

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Eggs is something of a blank slate. His only role is to have stuff happen to him. The only time we ever see him convincingly show some personality is when he is objecting—constantly objecting—to the humans’ prejudice against the boxtrolls. The overall effect is a whiny, bratty child who is upset about being morally superior to everyone else in the world.

And speaking of bratty, there’s his foil, a girl named Winnie.

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She feels like two characters stapled together. On the one hand, they try to make her the kind, openminded exception to humanity’s ignorance and bigotry. And then, for no reason at all, she is also fed lines that make her out to be some kind of macabre goth girl, as if the studio was afraid she might come across as too “princessy”.

Sometimes she’s sweet. Sometimes she’s bloodthirsty. But always, always is she an obnoxious little twerp. Oh, it’s not her fault. Her father doesn’t pay attention to her, and that totally gives her license to be an entitled brat for the whole movie.

It just doesn’t work, on so many levels.

The Villains

Can a thing be so ugly that it’s beautiful? That seems to be the driving question behind the creation of this movie’s villains.

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It takes a lot of effort to make filth. We all do it in our normal lives, and it comes so naturally to us that we barely notice how difficult it is. But when making something look filthy in an otherwise immaculate movie studio, it takes a lot of creativity to make it work.

The villains of this movie are some of the most detailed works of art ever to grace the silver screen. They are monuments of the grotesque. However, like the rest of the film, they are all style and little substance.

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The main villain, Snatcher, is evil simply because that is what he is. He’s bad to the core. He envies the rich people in his town, and captures Boxtrolls to win his way into their good graces, yet he is not sympathetic in any dimension.

His lackeys are the typical bumbling henchmen, so played out in this medium that they’ve moved beyond cliche and in the realm of caricature.

The Message

Which brings us to the real problem with this movie—the part that undercuts all the good efforts put into it. And that part is how tedious its central message is made.

The villains are all bad. Their motivations are 0% justified and there can be no question that they are wrong.

The heroes are all good. The boxtrolls themselves are angels in disguise and all the human stereotypes against them are the complete opposite of the truth. Ultimately, Eggs and Winnie accomplish nothing by convincing humanity that boxtrolls aren’t evil because it is so unthinkably easy to prove they are not evil. I can’t help but wonder how much better this movie would be if the boxtrolls did have something of a wild streak to them, if they did steal from humans or sometimes vandalize property but still had hearts of gold. Instead, what we got was the following.

Townspeople: “The Boxtrolls are evil.”
Winnie: “No, they’re not.”
Townspeople: “We instantly believe you and are convinced of the error of our ways.”

Thus ends the morality play. The only proof presented in defense of the boxtrolls are some pieces of evidence the audience is already familiar with, removing the possibility of any plot twists or hard right turns.

My Recommendation

At the time of this writing, The Boxtrolls is still on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it already, then I recommend you watch it once, for the visuals’ sake alone. After that, you will be done with it, as the film has no replay value to speak of.

Sorry, Laika. But we can still be friends! Your next movie looks interesting enough that I will probably see it in the theater.

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