I have this theory with Laika Studios. Every new movie that comes, the animation gets a huge improvement. But for every new movie, there comes a price in its quality. Coraline is the one that started its journey with memorable characters, amazing animation and a story with many twists, turns and wonders. With the bar so high, ParaNorman only half succeeded in my opinion. Sure the animation got better but with a visual atmosphere that looked unappealing and characters that were either interesting or too mean, it thankfully picked up in the second half to at least save its hide. “The Boxtrolls,” however, takes a back seat so high in the balcony that all we have left to marvel are the visuals and wish the story wasn’t so cliche, slow and brash.
Set in the Victorian era, a small town that has a fascination for cheese and rank social class by tall and colored hats has a problem with creatures known as boxtrolls. Apparently, an urban legend spreads that these monsters come out at night to eat people and took a baby for a late night snack. But as it turns out, these mischievous creatures only scavenge for loose parts for a city they build underground and that’s it. Instead of giving these cute monsters a distinctive personality they feel more like Minion and Gremlins clones voiced by Frank Welker.
But they are not alone as a small boy named Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright) lives with the boxtrolls to the point he is one. In a Tarzan, Lord of the Apes manner, he guards them like a band of brothers or tries to when a batch of exterminators plan to rid the town of these cutesy creatures to the pleasure of the town. I’d want to say there’s something interesting about the Eggs character but there unfortunately wasn’t. He just bored me throughout. A typical fish out of water that is raised by a different set of creatures. We never get to understand his role with these beings that much or even get an idea of his understanding between the world above with the humans and his world with the boxtrolls. There’s no support to show what he wants in this story. He only exists as a plot element for a predicable twist later on.
The only thing that is sort of entertaining in this movie is the villain, Archibald Snatcher. Ben Kingsley voices this twisted brute as he plans to capture every boxtroll in the town just to gain higher authority by means of a white tall hat and access to eating all the cheese he wants. The only thing I found at least amusing is the personality. This is the kind of villain I can laugh at for his slick and over the top movements and Ben is a good fit. But the biggest flaw is his motive. All he wants to get higher respect and even then, he has a huge allergy to cheese that makes him look so distorted and gruesome that in comparison The Elephant Man looks like a Saturday date. They also give him this dual cross dressing role but it doesn’t pay off in the end. It just leads to some one note jokes about a man in female’s clothing that I did get a chuckle out of but that’s really all it serves.
The main plot, that is if you can call it one, has Eggs trying to save his underground family from the hideous exterminator and his befundled henchmen (voiced by Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost and a surprisingly unrecognizable Tracy Morgan) who keep questioning if they are good or bad to the point we ourselves wonder what kind of movie it wants to be. Most of the time, it tries to be sweet and innocent like the underground dwellers but there isn’t much of a motive for them. They exist to be cute and act Minion-like as they babble nonsense and hit one another for slapstick. The next minute, it tries to be this dark kid’s film with its grimy sets and ugly character designs but nothing really comes together. One minute, the citizens keep talking about how boxtrolls have piles of bones and rivers of blood (even a whole song dedicated to it) while the next minute some of the adult characters feel like cut-outs from an episode of The Simpsons.
I guess the morale of “The Boxtrolls” is “be what you want to be,” but it gets lost under so much complex storytelling and predicable cliches that really drag the film down. With Coraline, it was a simple story that kept getting bigger and bigger without the need for any complex character work. ParaNorman did have some harsh beats but made up for it at the second half with its message of don’t judge a book by its cover. If there was a stronger story and better character motives while being light on the gross and macbe humor, maybe I wouldn’t feel so harsh on The Boxtrolls but so much potential was lost. Here, there’s too many underdeveloped characters and underdeveloped motives that don’t pay off and its form of comedy is so bizarre and strange that it made me scratch my head wondering what this was all building to. Why is the town obsessed with cheese? Why the higher class ranking done by hats? If this was building to a certain point at the end, I fail to see what it was building to in the first place in its weird and unpleasant sense of comedy. The only thing that barley redeems it is the animation and the mechanics behind it but in an animated tale, visuals accompany the story. And here, a weak story can’t be saved. By the time it kept going on and on even throughout the credits when they show how the animation is done in a one-note joke, I just wish it would end or at least have a stronger conclusion. This is probably the first stop-motion film I’ve seen since Corpse Bride where I asked myself just what went wrong behind all those crafted sets and mounds of tiny figures to make me feel so irked and disappointed.