Monday 8 September 2014

The Boxtrolls review

The Boxtrolls (PG, 97 mins)
Directors: Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Possibly the weakest summer on record for animated movies closes out with this likeable but problematic stop-motion effort that can’t quite make up in charm what it lacks in coherence.

Though an American production, The Boxtrolls is adapted from a British book by Alan Snow called Here Be Monsters, and retains a mostly British voice cast led by Ben Kingsley and Jared Harris. The titular creatures live under the streets of a quaint but rather odd town, coming up from the sewers at night to scavenge.

They’re much feared by the townspeople, to the extent an exterminator is hired to rid them of the problem. What they don’t know is that the Boxtrolls are in fact perfectly friendly, if a little disgusting. What’s more, a young boy lives with them, raised as one of them and named Eggs (because of his box) since he disappeared from the town as a baby.

It’s a bit of a shaky start that fills us in on all this, introducing us to a number of characters defined more by their oddness than anything more tangible. Chief among these is Kingsley as the exterminator, Archibald Snatcher, sounding like Michael Gambon doing an impression of Terry Jones’ Mr Creosote from The Meaning of Life. The result much of the time is as incomprehensible as that suggests.

Elsewhere the voices are just a little too clipped in their Englishness, with Isaac Hempstead Wright from Game of Thrones as Eggs and Elle Fanning as Winnie, the young girl helping him as they take on Snatcher. The best stuff comes from Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost, who are on sparkling form as Snatcher’s accomplices.

It’s Pythonesque in other ways too, with a real Gilliam flavour to its bizarre and grotesque look, which kids generally respond to. It’s also incredibly brown and, for all that it’s delightfully rendered, never exactly nice to look at. The animation is lively though, allowing the film to ooze a playful charm to go with its homemade, hand-cranked vibe.

And things do pick up somewhat when, after years of the Boxtrolls being picked off by Snatcher, Eggs goes to the surface to try to save them. It’s a world where the ruling classes are more concerned with cheese (no, really) than the welfare of the people.

This commentary on inequality is the main thematic thrust and, alongside a strong message of the merits of family, the film’s intentions are certainly good. But there’s an inefficiency to the story that holds it back, Snatcher’s scheme is never fully formed, and the climax is interminable. The characters are never appealing enough, the Boxtrolls are largely anonymous, and the overall feeling is that this is more guts and gruel than heart.

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