The Boxtrolls tells the story of a young boy who grows up with the titular cardboard-bound monsters, and how he has to save them from a band of troll-catchers who have convinced the town that the harmless creatures are, in fact, evil. But it’s also about a city obsessed with cheese, a class system based on hats and a girl who is obsessed with death and violence. It’s gross, silly, sharply satirical and is actually for children. It must be a Laika film.
Laika, the animation studio behind under-appreciated marvels Coraline and ParaNorman, are exceptionally hard workers. Animation is a time consuming process that requires a near miraculous attention to detail, but stop motion animation, the process of taking 24 photos of precisely positioned models for every second of film, is a doubly difficult discipline. Every minute of footage you see contains 1,440 photos, so The Boxtrolls, their latest film which runs at 100 minutes, is 144,000 photos long, each one moved ever so slightly to create the illusion of life. Any stop motion film even existing is reason, therefore, for celebration. Laika go the extra mile by making each of their films immensely imaginative and distinctively theirs, making each new release something to be greatly anticipated. Yet there is a sense with The Boxtrolls that the animators are fed up of going unnoticed – some early promotional material focussed on how much work they put in, while a hilarious mid-credits sting shows the animators at work. They want people to see what they do, that they are hard workers.
The animators have nothing to fear; as long as there are critics with an eye for good animation out there, the skill and ingenuity of The Boxtrolls will be championed in every column inch around the country. Once again, Laika impresses on two levels with their standard of animation. Firstly, on a technical level, they achieve a fluidity of motion that leaves behind the juddery days of something like The Nightmare Before Christmas. Characters slide, fly and run around the screen and it is impossible to see the process behind it – perhaps another reason for the animators wanting to make themselves noticed. The trolls themselves are the best thing about the film, all green and grey and warty but instantly loveable thanks to superb character design and the neat trick of naming them after what their box previously contained. Without speaking any English, the trolls become immediately recognisable and sort of iconic thanks to the skill of the people making them move.
Yet The Boxtrolls is also remarkable for the fact that the film has a distinctive, grotesque aesthetic that sets it apart from the rest of American animation that can, occasionally, veer towards the visually homogeneous. If the big new studios of the US are schoolkids, Pixar is the handsome, loved-by-all prom king, Dreamworks is the class clown who tries a little too hard to be as loved as the prom king, Blue Sky is the tag-along in the jock crowd and Laika is the weird kid in the corner whose notebook is covered with macabre doodles, who wears black even in summer and who won’t even go to prom because he’d rather stay home and watch horror films. The Boxtrolls is an ugly, different film, but brilliantly so. Nothing is quite the shape it should be, with roads twisting and turning round architecturally dubious houses populated by bulbous and bony people. Laika’s films have more in common with Jan Svankmajer and Jiri Trnka than any of its American contemporaries. They are gradually carving out their own gnarled niche in the market, and it’s constantly refreshing to see.
Another apparent influence is Charles Dickens, both in the visuals but also in the astute social satire. The great Victorian novelist, who was obviously writing before cinema existed, had a flair for using the imagery of architecture and people to reflect something of their personality. Coketown, a fictional Manchester-alike city in Hard Times, has “chimneys that were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes, as though every house put out a sign of the kind of people who might be expected to be born in it,” a description that could equally apply to the thoroughly Dickensian Cheesebridge of The Boxtrolls. Its people, too, are straight out of one of his satires, with inhuman shapes used as shorthand for class status or narrative role, and names such as Archibald Snatcher and Lord Portley-Rind are not a far cry from Josiah Bounderby. All of this serves a purpose for the film, in that (as with ParaNorman), the writers and directors are interested in making a point as well as telling a story. This is a society where the elites are demarcated by the colour of their hat and the quality of their cheese, and where the city’s rulers will spend money on a giant wheel of brie instead of a children’s hospital. It’s exaggerated and absurd, but surprisingly pointed in its absurdity. Dickens would certainly approve.
What The Boxtrolls has also inherited from the writer of Hard Times, however, is a broadness that comes at the cost of pace and purpose. Just as Dickens had multiple targets that he skewered over hundreds of pages, so too do directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi attempt to cover a lot of issues over a much shorter running time. Class systems, self-actualisation, persecution of difference, good and evil, fatherhood and learning to stand up for yourself are all themes that are covered by the plot, and some of them land with more impact than others. A subplot involving the villain – voiced by Ben Kingsley in a manner so over the top and hammy that it ultimately lessens his impact – and his allergy to cheese but his insistence on eating it, just doesn’t work and slows the film down to a halt. Although it does culminate in a surprising and hilarious climax, it also drags out the finale for a scene too long. By trying to cram in so many ideas, The Boxtrolls misses out on the emotional power of ParaNorman, which conveyed its message far more efficiently.
Ultimately while the pacing and lack of focus of The Boxtrolls stop it just short of greatness, it is, still, a Laika film and it contains all the hallmarks of what makes that such a special thing. The animation is incredible, the humour hits the mark and it is full of ideas and invention. Not everything works, but this is still an impressive, ambitious and unique film and, as such, it deserves to be cherished.
It’s customary when reviewing the latest animated releases to comment on their stunning visuals and/or famous voice casts. Even upon its 1999 release, however, critics of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut would have been hard-pressed to find anything to say on the subject of either.
Inheriting both its characteristic cut-out stop-motion animation and in-house voice actors from the television series it was based on, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut had to find new ways of differentiating itself from the half-hour episodes aired on Comedy Central. Co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, convinced that the show had almost run its course, decided to make the film a musical.
Satirising everything from traditional Disney to the MPAA, the film draws on elements from the season one episode “Death” in a story that sees the parents of South Park, Colorado, attempting to ban an offensive movie from Canada — Terrance and Phillip’s Asses Of Fire — resulting in death, war and the end of the world. Having fought Paramount Pictures for the right to make an R-rated film, Stone and Parker pack in as much profanity, nudity and violence as the certificate (and their new medium) could ever possibly allow.
But while ridiculously crude songs might have helped it bag the world record for swear words in an animated film, they are also show-stopping musical numbers in their own right. Each song parodies a particular Broadway style, opening with the Oaklahoma-esque ‘Mountain Town’ before marrying each of the individual tracks in ‘La Resistance’, a medley straight out of Les Miserables. Co-written by Stone, Parker and Marc Shaiman, it is the Oscar-nominated Blame Canada that really steals the show, however, with each listen revealing new depths of meaning. It is little wonder that their most recent collaboration, The Book Of Mormon, has been so eagerly anticipated, and so well received.
Both an admirable animation and a masterful musical, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is also one of the funniest comedies that you are ever likely to see. While astute in its critique of censorship and backwater American ignorance, it’s the film’s larger-than-life characters and witty one-liners that make it so incredibly entertaining, with the film adding a whole host of new catchphrases to the show’s already considerable collection. Sheila Broflovski, Chef and Big Gay Al all get their moments to shine, while guest appearances from George Clooney, Brent Spinner and Minnie Driver (as Brooke Shields) are each a joy.
However, as is the case with the television show, it’s the core friendship between Kyle, Stan, Cartman and Kenny that has made South Park so enduring, and unexpectedly endearing. Essentially an ensemble piece, Stone and Parker have done a great job of juggling each character’s individual arcs. The biggest laughs come from Stan’s pursuit to make Wendy like him and Cartman’s struggles with the profanity-inhibiting “V-Chip”, while Kyle carries the emotional brunt of the film as he tries to reconnect with his crusading mother, and Kenny goes to Hell to council Satan over his homosexual relationship with Saddam Hussein.
While South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut may not hold a torch to most of the other animations featured on this blog, then, Stone and Parker’s masterpiece has never been about stunning CG vistas and memorable vocal performances, using the genre instead to tell a story that would have been impossible using live action. The animation is merely a means to an end, allowing the filmmakers to unleash a scathingly satirical, toe-tappingly tunesome and endlessly re-watchable piece of contemporary commentary, and one that is still relevant today. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.
Steven Neish is perhaps one of the few people that loves animation quite as much as I do, but he likes entirely different animated films to me. I don’t even know if he has ever seen a Ghibli film. Fun Steven fact: he once sold his soul to Jeffrey Katzenberg.
If you want to write a Guest Favourite post, please let me know any way you can!
This review contains details that, whilst not really spoilers, have so far not been advertised in the promotional material for ParaNorman. As such, you may prefer to read this after you have seen it. The short story is: I liked it.
The Salem witch trials were part of a moment in history that have been overstudied and exaggerated. The killings of several women and children, under the accusations of witchcraft, were undoubtedly terrible, but they have somehow entered the public conscious in a way that belies their impact (which, in the long run, was negligible). There seems to be a morbid fascination with the way a society can turn against itself and commit acts of violence even to the people within it; the result is that ‘Witch hunt’ has been popularised as a term and the town of Salem now has a tourism industry based on these killings. This macabre interest in the witch trials has now somehow worked its way into children’s cinema, as ParaNorman displays when it takes a turn towards darkness as it emerges that the witch who is responsible for the roaming undead was a little girl who got killed by her townspeople.
There’s nothing wrong with a kid’s film being scary. This writer has strong memories of being scared witless by Pinocchio as a child, but without any lasting detrimental effect on his life (that he’s aware of). So a zombie film aimed at a young audience is not, essentially, a bad thing. But ParaNorman has an uncomfortable fixation on death, both in the film as whole and with the lead character, that means the film really should be approached with caution if you plan on taking you children, or someone else’s. The Salem-esque (the town isn’t actually Salem, but the brilliantly named Blithe Hollow) plot device mentioned above adds an especially grim tone, and culminates with a conversation full of dangerous mixed messages about death and the afterlife. The film is funny and surreal enough that it may not be an issue at all – many children seemed to be enjoying it during the screening, and perhaps this is just the worries of an over-thinking (sort of) adult. The other good news is that, even if you aren’t taking kids, ParaNorman is a superb bit of horror-comedy, full of stuff for adults to enjoy, too.
The film opens with an homage to classic zombie movies, and there’s a nice joke as a screaming girl is set upon by a zombie so slow she pauses mid scream, confused. It’s the first in many a long line of nods and winks to genre tropes, keeping one foot firmly planted in comedy even when things get seriously scary. There’s some surprisingly gross body humour, and the decomposing state of the walking dead is used to excellent effect. For those who are bigger fans of zombie films than my rather uneducated self, there are doubtlessly tons more in jokes and references that will go over everyone else’s heads. It’s clearly an affectionately made film and, regardless of it being an animation, is successful as both a solid horror film and a comedy.
But the real appeal of ParaNorman lies in the stunning animation. In the review of Aardman’s Pirates! earlier in the week, the rather foolhardy comment was made that it will probably be the most visually impressive animation of the year. A few days later Laika’s stop motion wizardry made that comment seem rather ridiculous. The fluidity of the animation here – done through a medium well known for it’s jerky movements – is nothing short of astonishing. The characters, although they look highly stylised and caricatured, move realistically and it beggars belief that this was not done on computers. Even beyond the more banal motions like walking and sitting down, the animation retains a smoothness that means the action sequences are properly gripping. Spikes erupt from the ground, cars career round corners and buildings fall apart with great flair and energy. The action sequences here are as exciting, if not more so, than many a live action film; the directors making perfect use of the medium to capture scenes that would be almost unfeasible otherwise. It’s no exaggeration to say that ParaNorman sets a new standard of excellence in stop motion.
So it’s a fantastic slice of horror cinema, a superlative work of animation, and is really funny to boot. It’s just a shame that it leans too heavily towards darkness, creating a tonal ambiguity that means ParaNorman stops just a little short of brilliance.