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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review: The Boxtrolls

Horror fans like myself are often heard to complain about the state of horror cinema: it’s all sequels, they’re all the same, etc. etc. But I think there’s a sub-genre that’s nearly always overlooked, that of kid’s horror movies, or maybe more accurately, kid’s Halloween movies. 2012’s Paranorman really showed what can be done with that, and was a hilarious, gorgeous, and surprisingly touching and memorable movie. This weekend saw the release of The Boxtrolls, directed by Graham Annable (animation dept. on Paranorman) and Anthony Stacchi–does it capture the spirit and imagination of Halloween in the same way?

The Boxtrolls centers on Eggs, a boy who has been raised by Boxtrolls, harmless creatures who spend their days tinkering and inventing with the junk of the upper world. Of course, they are seen as a dangerous menace by the cheese and hat-loving lords above, and there is an extermination team led by Archibald Snatcher to rid the city of the goofy monsters. The daughter of a wealthy lord finds herself in the middle of this conflict and, along with Eggs, seeks to free the Boxtrolls and see Snatcher brought to justice.

 It almost goes without saying that the movie is totally gorgeous for fans of stop-motion animation. As you get a chance to see in the charming mid-credits scene, the scale of the animation is quite large, and that really makes the details of the character models and the textures really pop. There are some really nice character designs that are fluid and funny and provide lots of personality. There’s maybe only one chaotic scene when they go a bit overboard with the smoke effects and it’s difficult to tell what’s happening, but overall the movie is visually a joy to behold.

The acting is a bit hit or miss, but mostly hit. Ben Kingsley in particular shines as the vile Archibald Snatcher, whom he has given a uniquely drawn out snarl that makes him especially menacing and entertaining. Other traditional actors are given great roles as henchman (Nick Frost, Tracy Morgan, Richard Ayoade) and snooty lords (Jared Harris), and it’s always wonderful to hear the talents of seasoned voice actors like Steve Blum, Dee Bradley Baker, and James Urbaniak. Only one falls a bit flat, which unfortunately is the main character Eggs, played by Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hemptead Wright. He’s not bad, per se, but doesn’t have the same cartoonish charm as the others.

Maybe most important, though, is the story. While the setup is interesting and has a nice payoff, the flow is not terribly consistent or engaging at times. The first half of the movie is very slow as it has to use a lot of expository bits to explain the world, and a grown up Eggs doesn’t show up for quite a while, which makes it a little hard to pinpoint him as the protagonist. Although the action sequences are raucous and fun, the move from scene to scene seems somewhat unmotivated for the first half as the movie meanders around the story. The end brings things together in a very satisfying way that is reminiscent of Paranorman’s best qualities, in particular its questioning morality in which (almost) no one is perfectly good or evil, which is refreshing especially in a movie meant primarily for children. This idea is played up to great comedic effect by the henchman Mr. Pickles (Ayoade), who keeps getting less and less sure that he’s one of the good guys.

Although its got some narrative flow issues, The Boxtrolls is, on the whole, a very enjoyable flick. In an age when even most mainstream non-children’s movies can’t seem to create a moral grey area, it’s engaging to see a movie where the monsters and the heroes are subverted and played with in such an interesting way. It’s a great effort from its somewhat new directors, and I’ll be watching to see what their next film is. If you’re looking for a fun movie for both yourself and the kids that will get your Halloween season started off right, check it out!
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