By Cleaver Patterson.
American-made animated films appear to have a fascination with middle European cities and architecture. Take The Boxtrolls for instance: the latest work from Laika Entertainment—the production company behind recent hits Coraline (2009) and Paranorman (2012)—has a predominance of gabled rooftops and twisting cobbled streets, which not only lends the tale a tone of otherworldliness, but also similarities with copious numbers of recent family-friendly cartoon features from Hollywood, like the uncanny resemblance between the imaginary town where the action unfolds and the gothic romanticism of Paris. Indeed, it is these comparisons which will make this film as enjoyable an experience for adults as it will unquestionably be for younger audiences.
The film centers itself on the orphan Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright). Unaware of his human parentage, he has been brought up by the Boxtrolls, a strange race of creatures who hide in a magical, mechanical world far beneath our own. Only able to venture into the city above their home after nightfall, the Boxtrolls live in constant fear of capture by the evil pest exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley). Snatcher, who has his own evil reasons for eradicating the cave dwelling creatures, will stop at nothing to keep the young Eggs from discovering how he really came to be brought up by the well-meaning trolls—a secret which could have devastating results for them all.
There was a time, pre-1990s, when most cartoon feature films were made solely with children audiences in mind. As the majority of the memorable animated works up to this period were still produced by Disney, they possessed the main constituents upon which that studio had built their reputation. With a few notable exceptions, the majority of animated works were still based on fairytales and featured the obligatory talking animals, fairies, evil magicians and witches. Occasionally—when the legend and fairy story pool stagnated—studios would cast their nets wider with films like MGM’s live action/animated hybrid The Phantom Tollbooth (1970) or Disney’s classic The Rescuers (1977). However, for the main, this particular niche area of filmmaking stuck to what it, and its core audience, knew best: the classic fairytale.
But like everything, taste in film, even in the seemingly niche market of animation, changes. No fools, filmmakers realise that adults (in the form of parents) make up a not insignificant part of the audience for these ‘family’ films, as the marketing departments prefer to call them. As a result, it can do no harm to introduce, subtlety or otherwise, elements and themes which, whilst not being overtly adult in content, are none-the-less of a more sophisticated nature. With this in mind the genre began, in more recent years, to increasingly take inspiration from sources which have little or nothing to do with traditional stories, as well as being strewn with double entendres and nostalgic nods which pass over the heads of most children, but amuse and satisfy their more mature guardians. Of late, hits like Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007) have proven successful with thematic influences outside of the regular, whilst Disney’s Wreck It Ralph (2012) played as heavily on nostalgia which would appeal to adults, as it did on its child-friendly elements. The recent creation in 2001 of an Oscar category for animated features also gave the genre, still seen by many as lacking the gravitas of mainstream cinema, an added air of respectability.
Many of these elements come into play with The Boxtrolls. The film oozes charm and a sophisticated timelessness which lends it that magical universality that makes a film appealing no matter when or where it’s watched. The characters—whether loveable in the form of the Boxtrolls (ingeniously named after whatever kind of discarded box they have taken to wearing) and their adopted human child Eggs, dastardly in the person of their arch enemy Archibald Snatcher, or quite frankly hapless as in the case of everyone else—taken from the novel Here Be Monsters (2007) by bestselling author Alan Snow, work for the same reasons. The secret of the best children’s books is that they don’t talk down to their audience, which lends them a degree of appeal to adults as well. It of course helps to have an array of voice talents, including Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning, Toni Collette and Simon Pegg—under the direction of Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi—to add life to the characters. Here though, as with a good soundtrack, they are never in danger of detracting from what unfolds on screen, to the extent that, as in all good cartoons, you are seldom aware that famous names or otherwise are bringing the imaginary beings alive.
All else aside, The Boxtrolls delivers where it matters most by providing fun and wacky, five star family entertainment, which is, after all, its main aim.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London. He regularly contributes to various websites including Film International, CineVue and The People’s Movies. His writing has also featured in such publications as Rue Morgue, Video Watchdog and Curzon Magazine.
The Boxtrolls opens in the UK on 12th September and the USA on 26th September, 2014.