Tuesday, 13 January 2015

'The Boxtrolls' Review

The Boxtrolls live under the city of Cheesebridge. The aforementioned are small Trolls who wear cardboard boxes and come out at night to collect human rubbish. When a human boy is seemingly kidnapped by the Boxtrolls, the humans fear the worst and begin a campaign of ‘pest control’ against them. The campaign is led by Archibald Snatcher, a man obsessed with becoming a member of the exclusive ‘White Hat’ council, which runs the city. Little does the human world know that the ‘kidnapped’ boy is alive and well and being raised by the Boxtrolls. Can the human boy ‘Eggs’, named after his box, manage to repair the damage between his two communities? Or are ‘The Boxtrolls’ doomed to become extinct?

So ‘The Boxtrolls’ is a stop-motion animated film. This is more of an apt description than you would imagine for this film. This is going to sound needlessly harsh but ‘The Boxtrolls’ is everything wrong with stop-motion animation. Now bear with me for a few minutes and I shall explain that rather hurtful remark.

I love stop-motion animation; it’s probably my favourite form of animation in fact. What I love about it is the hand crafted feeling it inevitably has. I love the thumb prints in the plasticine; I love the slight inconsistencies in the motion; I love the mistakes because they sell the art form. The personalities of those who work on the film are saved within each mistake and transferred to the audience. The passion of the artists is transferred and is infectious, making you fall in love with the film as the creators have.

In a truly great work of stop-motion, that personality also feeds the narrative, the greater world of the film. ‘The Nightmare before Christmas’ is full of personality from a passionate Henry Selick at the helm and it feels alive. ‘Corpse Bride’ is made by a passionless Tim Burton and is as dead as the titular character. Stop-motion is more than just a technical skill; it is a way of thinking, a way of being!

If a film is being made into stop-motion it needs that feeling of passion, it needs that injection of life. If you simply tell a story using a technique but without understanding the strengths of it you get something passionless, you get something boring, you get ‘The Boxtrolls’.

The story of ‘The Boxtrolls’ feels like about a half dozen other stop-motion films. You have your small Victoriana obsessed town, populated with cardboard cut-outs. You have you hero who doesn’t fit in to that world and your likable monsters that nobody will accept. I would forgive ‘The Boxtrolls’ for feeling generic if it had some feeling of artistic design behind it, some underlying heart but it doesn’t.

It could have easily had a more interesting story. ‘The Boxtrolls’ is full of interesting ideas but none are developed. The central idea of a child raised by ‘monsters’ has potential, but it is never given any narrative teeth. The subtle nods to the nature of fascism and humanity are also interesting but they are left as a background element. Lots of interesting elements are introduced but left as background detail to service a story that simply isn’t interesting. It isn’t interesting because it feels smoothed down and polished, simplified to remove any edges that might catch your attention.

The animation is similarly smoothed out. The animation is technically perfect, to the point where I had to double check the film wasn’t CG. Although that is a great compliment to the animators, it is a very harsh criticism to the film itself. What is the point of making a stop motion film that looks like it has been computer generated? Is it to prove a point? To prove that stop-motion can look as good as Pixar? Why prove that? Unless it looks better than Pixar people aren’t going to suddenly switch to an incredibly time consuming, fault prone method of making films.

This is the equivalent of a portrait painter creating photo realistic images using brush and paint. Yes they can compete with a stills camera but ‘perfection’ is not a painter’s strength. They create such types of images primarily to show that they can, not as a way to challenge photography. The strength of handmade art lies in the inherent imperfection of humanity. A computer will never be able to compete with that, so why try and compete with it for perfection? I’m not saying you have to purposefully make mistakes when you’re creating a film such as this to make it interesting. Mistakes usually come from risks being taken however, from people who are willing to take chances.

‘The Boxtrolls’ is a story about the value of life that feels completely lifeless. Some of this is down to the flaccid direction and some to the somewhat generic voice acting. Above all ‘The Boxtrolls’ feels lifeless because any life was strangled out of it in the pursuit of ‘perfection’. It’s sad that the only part of this film that feels interesting to me was the 2D animated credits; they have their own distinct personality and they exist as a sad reminder of what could have been had the rest of the film been allowed to be itself.

I completely understand wanting to save stop-motion animation from the endless pursuit of computer animation, I really do. The wonderful thing however, is that stop-motion animation does not need to be preserved. It exists as a potential in every webcam in the world. What artists at the birth of film had to struggle to create in months can now be created in an afternoon by a child with Lego. Stop-motion animation will live as long as people want to create it.  

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