The Boxtrolls

By Tim McEown

Mailed on January 26, 2015

Stamp image Priority

Dear Sir Ben Kingsley

Dear Sir Ben Kingsley,

You have always been a favorite of mine, Sir Ben. But this performance? Unbelievable.

The Boxtrolls is the most complete genre film I have seen in a very long time. And that includes Zero Dark 30, Birdman, Raid: Redemption and even Children of Men. While those films hold a special place in my heart, Box Trolls stands head and shoulders above them in a particular way. The only other films that come immediately to mind that are as carefully realized are Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. Both of which are examples of the kind of films that feel utterly true to themselves. Yes, just like The Boxtrolls.

Quite a bit of that magnificence is owed to you, Sir Ben. Your ecstatically unhinged portrayal of the aptly-named social climber, Archibald Snatcher/Madame Frou Frou. You are not alone in your excellence. Voice acting is an often overlooked art, but it can really make a good film better and a mediocre film unwatchable. In this case, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, along with Jared Harris, Richard Ayoade (and even Tracy Morgan for god’s sake) add to a heady mix of world building and joyously unconventional chaos that is unmatched in any film I have seen this year, animated or otherwise.

It would be difficult to do justice to the depth and detail of the world The Boxtrollscreates. Every behavioral and visual cue of its occupants and their environment reinforces a sense of place, a world that is fully contained and articulated. A small but telling example is how the Box Trolls demonstrate their non-verbal approval; it’s a gesture so simple, yet so poignant, that it serves to cement their reality. The film is filled from top to bottom with these kinds of moments—but you have to give this film the attention it deserves to catch them.

The story is adapted from the YA book Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow. Certainly this film is not a verbatim retelling of the book, but it does retain a particular anarchic undercurrent. A more effective and pointed deconstruction of the idiocy of rigid class barriers would be difficult to imagine. The kind of distortions and lack of perspective such systems engender is exposed, in the film, with metaphors like the implied importance of a thing as banal as the color of a hat.

Snatcher – desperately grasping, alternately fawning and threatening, wholly consumed with the trappings of power – is an example of what kind of citizen these sort of barriers create. But the flair, my god. You can chew scenery even when you’re a stop-motion grotesque. Despite your overwhelming presence, the film still perfectly integrates Snatcher and his nasty anima, Madame Frou Frou, into its pantheon of distinctive and memorable characters. It all works phenomenally well.

Animated films have become the gold standard for narrative construction. They are almost always remarkably well-crafted when it comes to the basics of storytelling. And while some have argued that the plot of The Boxtrolls is too thin, I think that misses what’s important: so much of the story resides in the lived details of the characters rather than the exposition; cheese as a status symbol; the unarticulated but overt class barriers; the parallels between the Box Trolls and Europe’s historically demonized ethnic under classes. All these details add a subtle narrative richness that is essential in making the world of the story feel real. I also now understand why the Lego Movie didn’t make the cut. The Boxtrolls makes it look like the basement project of a couple well-equipped, smart-assed university kids.

Thank you Ben for contributing to this minor masterpiece.

(I feel like it would be alright to call you Ben.)



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