Over the course of the past few weeks I’ve been reading more and more about Buddhism, or more appropriately the buddha dharma. It’s been a long time since I’ve been very interested in any religious system, but there is something I find fascinating about the teachings of Buddhism. Mostly, it’s hard to deny the effects of living in the moment. Being in the here-and-now and how that can improve one’s experience as we live our lives in a world obsessed with distraction.
I find similarities in the micro-sense when it comes to the way we consume movies. Not only are we blessed with an abundance of choice, but we now consume cinema in a variety of environments, some quite distracting, and on a number of screen sizes. Imagine the man watching a movie on his iPad in a coffee shop. Sure, he’s got his fancy noise-canceling headphones on, but he’s easily distracted by push notifications at the top of his screen and life bustling about around him. That movie has no chance of being truly enjoyed as it was intended, regardless of its quality.
These are imperfect moments in our moviegoing journey. Availability and access trump the search for that perfect, quiet, shared experience. One might ask whether all movies – especially the overwhelming majority of sequels, remakes and marketing-first fare – even deserve our full attention. They do, but that’s not the point. Plenty of movies don’t inspire us to be in the moment, so we watch them on tiny LCD screens.
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that deserves you full attention. One that demands that you stay in the moment and pays you back for sitting quietly in a dark theater. The Boxtrolls, silly as it may sound, is one of these rare films.
The folks at Laika Entertainment, who previously gave us Coraline and ParaNorman, are pros at delivering these carefully crafted, awe-inspiring experiences. It has a lot to do with the hand-made quality of their films and their commitment to the otherwise fading art of stop-motion animation. It’s a tedious, grueling process to make movies like The Boxtrolls. Every movement seen on screen takes hundreds of shots and individual adjustments from the animators, not to mention all the time it takes to hand-craft every character, setting, prop and wardrobe item. It’s hard to imagine the insanity that drives such a creative process.
Lucky for audiences, they keep making films that are inventive and delightful. And in the case of The Boxtrolls, incredibly charming. The titular characters are exactly what their name would suggest, trolls who walk around in boxes. They get their names from what’s on the outside of the boxes – Fish, Wheels, Shoe, Fragile, Sweets and the like. They live beneath the island of Cheesebridge, a Northern European-esque vale known for its cheese selection and its classism (the upper crust wear white hats, while the commoners wear other colors or no hat at all).
The story revolves around a little boy named Eggs (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hempstead-Wright) who was taken by the Boxtrolls as a baby and has lived with them for the past ten years. All the while, an evil exterminator in a red hat (voiced by Ben Kingsley) has used the boy’s disappearance to scare the town into letting him hunt and capture the otherwise harmless Boxtrolls. With the help of a spoiled but curious girl from one of the town’s wealthy cheese magnates (voiced by Elle Fanning), Eggs must come to the surface and find a way to save his Boxtroll family from extinction.
As straight forward as it may sound, The Boxtrolls finds its charm in the smaller moments. From an ongoing existential conversation by two of the exterminator’s lackeys (voiced by The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade and Shaun of the Dead’s Nick Frost) as to whether or not they are good guys or bad guys to one of the funniest, simplest pun gags I’ve seen in a movie in years (it’s all about cheese, the pun-tasticness of that is irresistible), the film delivers sweet and charming at every turn.
It also delivers plenty of ambiance and some spooky moments early on. The world of Cheesebridge is gorgeously built with a level of detail that few live-action movies can accomplish. Even the film’s less perfect moments (jerky character movements here and there) fit right into the world the filmmakers have created. It’s a credit to Laika, a studio that inexplicably seems to fly under the radar, that they can have a directing duo that includes a first timer (Graham Annable) and a newcomer to their studio (Anthony Stacchi, previously known for his animation work at ILM and as co-director of Open Season) come in and continue their streak of incredible little films. If The Boxtrolls is proof of anything, it’s that Laika’s creative process is as strong as anyone’s.
All of this craftsmanship is put to use in a way that serves what I’d consider to be the greatest good: the creation of a film that is wonderful in the moment. It’s wonderful for children seeking storybook excitement. It’s wonderful for adults who appreciate the thoughtful artistry (and the exceptional puns). It’s wonderful for anyone who lives for those moments, sitting quietly in a darkened theater, where movie magic is still very much alive.
The Upside: Relentlessly charming, wonderfully crafted and special in every way. Perhaps the most delightful cinematic experience of the year.
The Downside: It’s a brisk 97-minute movie, although if you’re taking the kids (and you should) that’s probably just right.
On the Side: The closing credits are worth sticking around for, as they’ve included a great time-lapse scene in which we see characters talking while animators move them ever-so-slightly. It’s an amazing testament to the work that goes into such a movie.