Good Things Come in Cardboard Packages

Frédérik SisaA&E, Film

A review of The Boxtrolls

[img]2780|right|||no_popup[/img]Who would guess that, in today’s reactionary America, an animated family-friendly (ish) film could be imbued with such a blatant, albeit non-specific and apolitical, social critique? It’s not the French Revolution, but where most films add silly but subtle adult innuendo over children’s fare, The Boxtrolls also hints at the instinct of an Occupy Wall Street protest.

Richly animated with delightfully exaggerated character designs, details galore to feast on, and unimpeachable voice acting, the film is a worthy addition to the canon of notable stop-motion films whose most recent inductee was Paranorman. While comical and heartfelt, The Boxtrolls comes curiously close to misfiring at times with grotesque moments that recall the notorious mutation scene in Akira, only to be rescued by a wicked sense of irony. That wickedness pervades the narrative, which is unafraid of peeling back the skin of charm to reveal a sinister marrow.

Based on Alan Snow’s book Here Be Monsters!, we could call The Boxtrolls a tale of two superimposed cities. In contrast to an underworld inhabited by anarchic but culturally cohesive boxtrolls – shy, mechanically-gifted trolls clothed in boxes – the upper world of Cheesebridge is ordered along feudal lines. Where the middle classes go about their business and the boxtrolls, stand-ins for the working classes, scavenge, the city’s elites literally eat cheese and lavishly gratify their own needs rather than tend to necessities such as, for example, a children’s hospital. They do nothing, but they do wear very lovely white hats.

Spanning both worlds are the film’s gentle hero and monstrous villain. The former, Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright), is a boy apparently abducted by the boxtrolls when just a baby. The latter, Archibald Snatcher, is a pitiable character corrupted by an ambition both encouraged and disdained by a social hierarchy that celebrates aristocracy. In this tension, the villain– voiced by Ben Kingsley, whom you’ll never see coming on account of his spot-on impression of Michael Gambon – plays into an imperialistic power structure that rests on ethnophobia to hold itself up. Of course, the film is not polemical, and enjoyment of the sweet-but-sideways morality tale stands on its own as the story of an adventurous boy raised by sweet-natured creatures, trying to speak truth to power in the face of a genocidal, but also pathetic, threat.

For all its class awareness, the story invariably delivers an unconditional happy ending – emotionally satisfying, as we cheer our heroes’ success, but politically timid. Cheesebridge is restored to a complacent status quo that shows no consideration for the meaning of Snatcher’s reign of terror and no accountability for the elites who catalyzed it. The Boxtrolls offers no disapproving wag of the finger or cluck of the tongue at this outcome, which is understandable in its bid for likeability. Yet, if we are to derive more than entertainment value from our films, should we not ask how our storytelling – whether it shakes our gilded cage or not – acts as our mirror?

Frédérik Sisa is the Page's assistant editor and resident art critic. He can be reached via eMail at, and invites you to connect with him via social media:

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