'The Boxtrolls': Venice Review

Something vital got lost in translation

A villainous troll catcher sets out to eradicate the underclass and join the cheese-eating elite in the latest from the animation house behind 'Coraline' and 'ParaNorman'

There’s a captivating sequence during the end credits of The Boxtrolls that’s more or less a hand-drawn capsule version of the entire story, accompanied by an airy cover of the Pete Seeger hit “Little Boxes” performed by Portland band Loch Lomond. That’s followed by two characters who share an existentialist bent — amusingly voiced by Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost — imagining a world in which their every movement is manipulated by unseen giants, before cameras pan back to show producer and lead animator Travis Knight tinkering away.

Those few playful minutes are packed with charm, wit and an infectious enthusiasm for the magic of animation — all qualities that this stubbornly unappealing 3D toon lacks.

Like Coraline and ParaNorman before it, the film was hatched out of artisanal Oregon-based animation studio Laika, where Knight serves as president. And like those earlier features, which managed more successfully to juggle dark with light, this one appears unafraid to target a more limited audience than most wide-release CG-animated movies. Its demographic seems likely to mirror the 8-14 age range of the source material, British children’s author Alan Snow’s fantasy adventure, Here Be Monsters!

Whether kids unfamiliar with that book and others in the Ratbridge Chronicles series will respond to the film’s unrelenting cynicism is doubtful. There’s a crucial shortage of heart here, from the messy storytelling to the hit-or-miss humor and unattractive visuals. Directed by Anthony Stacchi (Open Season) and first-timer Graham Annable, the film was shot, with no major dividends, in stereoscopic 3D, and is predominantly stop-motion, with some CG and hand-drawn work.

Considered in adult terms, it’s a tale of class envy and attempted genocide in a mountaintop Victorian-era township called Cheesebridge, where access to that dairy product in all its most flavorful forms is what separates the rich “White Hats” from the poor in red. Down below ground level live the Boxtrolls, mischievous nonverbal creatures outfitted in recycled cartons. Each of them takes its name from its packaging: Fish, Shoe, Fragile, etc.

Irena Brignull and Adam Pava’s screenplay perhaps intentionally fudges the intro, which explains how the Boxtrolls came to be so hated by the above-ground citizenry, and how they came to raise a human boy, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), since his infancy. This background is outlined more clearly later on, but that doesn’t exactly facilitate early plot access.

Limited compensation comes in our initial exposure to the happy Boxtroll community, who travel by conveyor belt in their underground lair, eating bugs and stacking themselves into a neat cube when it's time to rest. A race of builders, as opposed to the idle folk up above, they also make regular forays into the town proper after nightly curfew to forage for whatever useful junk they can get their hands on. However, once introduced, the Boxtrolls don’t actually do much.

Having successfully spread the falsehood that Boxtrolls eat children, social-climbing “Red Hat” Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) has vowed to exterminate the vermin, believing their demise is his ticket to the civic leaders’ cheese-tasting table. He roars in his wagon along the cobblestone streets at night with his henchmen, crying, “Hide your cheese! Hide your tender and delicious babies!”

With each nighttime excursion, a few more Boxtrolls are captured and believed killed, and as their numbers dwindle, Eggs begins to fear for their survival. But during one trip above ground, he meets fellow 11-year-old Winnie (Elle Fanning), the neglected daughter of snooty Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), leader of the White Hat elite. The girl’s morbid fixation with Boxtrolls gives way to solidarity upon closer acquaintance, and she becomes an ally as Snatcher grows ever more ruthless.

There’s no shortage of plot here, and yet somehow the film never gathers much steam, shuffling from one busy set-piece to the next without fostering investment in characters good or bad. While Dario Marianelli’s robust score spells drama and action, even the requisite roller-coasteresque chase scenes fail to build excitement. And the more dialogue-driven moments are often sluggish and dull, particularly when the writers start underlining their themes about how loving families come in many forms, and how packaging matters less than what’s inside.

The death blow to any residual affection the film has managed to hang on to comes in the climactic stretch, during which the now-crazed Snatcher unleashes a mammoth contraption that’s like a steampunk transformer robot, stomping all over town, causing panic and mayhem. This ugly imagery is a far cry from the quaint Edward Gorey-style Victoriana of the illustrations that accompanied Snow’s novel. In fact, the dreary-looking storybook hamlet has little that could be called distinctive.

The work of the voice cast is fine but rarely interesting enough to bust out from behind the artists’ lackluster character designs. Kingsley’s Snatcher is a particularly joyless villain, not least of all when he’s grotesquely bloated from cheese intolerance. Actors like Toni Collette, Tracy Morgan and Simon Pegg are wasted; the most entertaining contributions come from Ayoade and Frost as Snatcher’s incongruously cerebral sidekicks. Questioning the notion of heroism and the lines separating the righteous from wrongdoers, they wonder if Boxtrolls “understand the duality of good and evil.”

The saddest misstep here is that while the kind, industrious Boxtrolls are the downtrodden of the story, they are also treated as such by the screenwriters. Their fate becomes entirely secondary to Snatcher’s lust for position and wealth, to Eggs’ friendship with plucky Winnie, and to the boy’s reunion with a lost figure from his past. And frankly, when there are trolls in peril in the mix, who cares about all that other stuff?

Production company: Laika
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Dee Bradley Baker, Steve Blum, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Simon Pegg
Directors: Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable
Screenwriter: Irena Brignull, Adam Pava, based on Alan Snow’s book, Here Be Monsters!
Producers: David Bleiman Ichioka, Travis Knight
Director of photography: John Ashlee Prat
Production designer: Paul Lasaine
Costume designer: Deborah Cook
Music: Dario Marianelli
Editor: Edie Ichioka
Animation supervisor: Brad Schiff
Visual effects supervisors: Brian Van’t Hul, Steve Emerson

Rated PG, 96 minutes