Stop-motion wunderstudio Laika’s latest film, The Boxtrolls, hits the DVD/Blu-Ray market today. You should see The Boxtrolls (if you haven’t already, that is). It’s sweet, it’s extremely strange and its tremendous stop-motion visuals are more than worth whatever viewing fees might be required up front. But if there’s been one complaint I found in this tale of boy, girl, cheese and an army of cardboard-clad trolls, it’d be this: the film suffers from story issues. Well, story “issue,” in the singular. That issue being:
The Boxtrolls is the exact same movie as ParaNorman.
Before you say anything- yes, there are obvious differences between the two films. ParaNorman is set in the world you and I inhabit, while The Boxtrolls takes place in the fictional quasi-victorian isle of Cheesebridge. ParaNorman deals with witches, ghosts and zombies, while The Boxtrolls’ one supernatural element hews to the titular trolls. Also, ParaNorman’s intrepid boy hero is voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee while The Boxtrolls chose a different hyphenated teen actor, Isaac Hempstead-Wright. But dig past the superficial and into the pungent inner layers of The Boxtrolls, and you’ll find that every point the film’s trying to make is a point already made by ParaNorman. And a point better made by ParaNorman.
Allow me to explain.
First, there are a few superficial-layer basics. Both films are about two children, a boy and a girl, who come from vastly different worlds yet have extremely similar experiences. In ParaNorman, that’s Norman and Aggie, an average 21st century boy and an 18th century girl, both persecuted for having spooky spiritual powers. In The Boxtrolls, it’s Eggs and Winnie, two kids labeled as outcasts, despite existing on opposite rungs of society (Winnie’s cut off from society in her family’s ivory tower, while Eggs is cut off by being a feral boy who lives with trolls in a sewer).
There’s also a vein of darkness (and a murder) in each film’s core. Aggie at the hands of the townspeople, and Herbert Trubshaw at the hands of Archibald Snatcher (now, Herbert’s not technically dead and thus this isn’t, technically speaking, a murder, but we don’t find that out until the very end of the film). In both cases, it takes a good bit of digging (and a significant portion of the runtime) for that inner darkness to be fully unearthed.
Now comes the heart of the matter. Below, let’s take apart every major theme in The Boxtrolls, every message the film strives to teach, and follow it up with ParaNorman’s own version of the same subject. A version that, I’ll argue, is the superior.
Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover
An old standby, and always relevant in kids movies about trolls and horrible zombies. The Boxtrolls sets up an easy dichotomy: these gnarled little blue-gray scavengers are seen as scummy and ruthlessly violent by the people of Cheesebridge, but in reality they’re adorable, harmless, and quite handy with a pair of pliers. We’re supposed to know this from the very start- the film never tries to pull the wool over our eyes regarding the Boxtrolls’ nature. They’re cuddly. End of story.
Except for that one time when The Boxtrolls totally tries to pull the wool over our eyes. It comes in the opening moments of the film, as we see the Boxtrolls scuttle away underground with a human baby in tow, entirely context-free. The movie continues on, happily painting the Boxtrolls as the cuddliest little things to ever go by the name “troll,” while letting that one moment stew in the back of our heads. Sure, they’re cute and all, but did they still someone’s baby? They’re doing a solid job raising the little guy, but still, that’s legitimate monster behavior. Eventually it’s revealed later on that no, the Boxtrolls didn’t steal anyone’s baby- they were tasked with raising little Eggs after his father was seemingly murdered.
So, The Boxtrolls vehemently tells us we shouldn’t judge a troll based on what the common perception (ghastly, bloody baby-eater) of that troll might be. But then it and tries to shape our perceptions of those trolls towards something negative anyway. It’s an oddly mixed message. Also in the mixed message category is the villain Snatcher- a hideously ugly fellow whose physical cheese-allergy deformities are clearly meant to be snickered at. But he’s evil, so that’s fine, apparently.
ParaNorman has no such problem. It preaches the exact same moral: zombies and witches might be frightening to look at, but outer appearances aren’t everything. But it does so without getting the lines crossed. Its zombies and witches are precisely one way (that way: scary), until the film deigns to reveal that they aren’t that way at all. These reveals are painstakingly obvious. The zombies are shambling, groaning horrors, until they stop and start to speak polite, apologetic English, and the witch is a wart-nosed Halloween decoration until it’s revealed there’s a frightened little girl at her core. But they work- and without any confusion, they hit with far more impact. Also, by making the niceness of the monsters (and no, technically ParaNorman’s zombie’s aren’t “nice,” having sentenced a little girl to death, but they’re hardly brain-eating horrors) a surprise, ParaNorman gives its “no judging by book cover” moral far more impact.
It all comes to a head in what might be ParaNorman’s most genius moment. The townspeople, having banded together in a torch-and-pitchfork mob to hunt down the zombies for the crime of being gross and scary looking, swarm on city hall, trying to get to the zombies inside. Only, Norman and his friends are in there, and from the inside, the angry mobbers now resemble zombies themselves- acting out the classic zombie movie maneuver of punching through walls and windows to grasp aimlessly at whoever’s inside.
The Boxtrolls has its strengths in this category- chief among them Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles, two of Snatcher’s henchman who ruminate on their own goodness, and whether they’re viewed as conquering heros or sniveling lackeys. But its not enough to outweigh ParaNorman, which crafts this entire theme into a perfectly-delivered emotional punch, then allows the sudden change in perspective to give the film an entirely new meaning.
Hooray for LGBT!
Both ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls strive to include a character who doesn’t confirm to the standard straight person vibe. In ParaNorman, that’d be Mitch, the bulky, thick-skulled jock who loves working out, kicking stuff and his totally sick van… and also his boyfriend, who’s totally into chick flicks (opposites do attract, after all). In The Boxtrolls, that character is Snatcher, who moonlights in drag as the sultry, seductive and curiously beer-bellied Madame Frou Frou.
In both films, the character’s gay/drag leanings are somewhat of a surprise. Mitch’s sexuality remains hidden until a gag at the very end of the film, while perilously few in the Cheesebridge population know that Snatcher and Frou Frou are the very same (there’s a running theme here, that ParaNorman sets up its surprises for its audience as well as its characters, while The Boxtrolls continually lets the audience in on the secret ahead of time).
The purpose of Mitch being gay is abundantly clear. His presence makes a point that LGBT people aren’t always the stereotypes we typically see in the media, and there are plenty of gay men who aren’t effeminate and fashion-obsessed. In ParaNorman, they can be any stereotype they choose- like guys who say “dude” in every sentence and obsess over their totally sick vans.
The purpose of Snatcher dressing in ladies’ clothing is not entirely clear. Snatcher dressing in drag is given far more attention than Mitch’s boyfriend, and a fair chunk of The Boxtrolls, and yet there isn’t any real payoff to him doing so. He sings, he flirts his way through high-society schmoozefests and is practically felt up by every wealthy man in Cheesebridge. And when the truth is revealed, all we get is a cheap joke about how Winnie’s father, Lord Portley-Rind, is upset about unknowingly hitting on a dude in a dress. Mitch’s sexuality is 100% payoff- the only time we hear about it, it’s a surprise that drives home the message. When Snatcher throws on a cocktail dress, he meanders around for a while, then fades away.
Don’t Conform, Be Yourself
Despite the many differences between Blithe Hollow, MA and Cheesebridge, both societies teach the same thing: kids should be normal, and normal kids don’t obsess over all this freaky stuff. For Norman, that’s his ghost obsession. He’s bullied in school and alienated by his own family (save one very understanding undead grandma) because he spends most of his day talking to ghosts. By the same token is Winnie, who’s supposed to be a proper girl. Proper girls don’t fantasize about Boxtrolls eating babies and lounging in pools of blood and bone.
In this case, the kids are totally the same. It’s the societies that differ. Winnie may talk incessantly about Boxtroll attacks in graphic detail, but the only difference between her and your average Cheesebridgian is the amount of graphic detail. Those who dwell in Cheesebridge love to hear about how horrible Boxtroll attacks are. They’ll swarm the block to see Madame Frou Frou sing about how Boxtrolls gnaw the flesh away from bone. Totally fine. But talk about it just a little too much, as Winnie does, and now you’re branded a freak by society.
ParaNorman sets up a simple distinction between weird boy and weird town. Norman is way into ghosts. Blithe Hollow is way into witches. Thus, we have an easily distinguishable reason why weird Norman can be an outcast from his weird town. Was he into witchcraft to the same degree that he dwelled on spirits, and he’d be your average citizen (like the school drama teacher, who fits in just fine while instructing the children to scream about witch-hangings with gusto). But he’s into the wrong supernatural phenomenon, so cue the bullying and humiliation.
Things go a step further in ParaNorman, a film that really strives to make the people of Blithe Hollow feel same-y. Nearly every non-zombie-or-witch character is some kind of stereotype- Norman’s sister Courtney the preppy cheerleader, Mitch the jock (the gay jock, but jock nonetheless), Alvin the bully, Neil the chubby kid who’s the butt of everyone’s jokes. Norman’s dad brings a video camera to record Norman’s school play, just like every other dad in the auditorium. Random townsfolk litter and gorge on fast food and vending machine candy.
ParaNorman has all that, and The Boxtrolls doesn’t actually give us a solid glimpse of what the average Cheesebridgians are doing. They go to see Madame Frou Frou… and that’s it. Everything else in The Boxtrolls is the 1% on either the top or the bottom of society.
Fathers, Please Don’t Neglect Your Children
Every Laika child hit with a strong message of “be like everyone else” is hearing that message from one source above all: his/her father. Lord Portley-Rind wants Winnie to be a good girl (which amounts to being quiet and out of the way, really), while Norman’s dad Perry just wants Norman to be a normal kid. The difference being: Perry is a multifaceted person, who may be inconsiderate but also has real feelings. Lord Portley-Rind is just a humongous asshole.
Put yourself in Perry’s shoes. Sure, he should probably accept Norman for who he is (and Perry does, eventually), but imagine seeing your son bullied and treated like an outcast, day in and day out. And on top of that, your son keeps telling you that your mother (your mother just died, by the way) is a ghost and haunting the house- and talking to him, and not you. That’s legitimately creepy. It may not be the nicest thing ever, but pushing your son to try and be one of the normal kids is at least understandable, from Perry’s perspective.
Now, Lord Portley-Rind. Your daughter comes to you with fears about Boxtrolls. You ignore her. She tells you about a boy she’s met in the sewers, how the entire foundation of Cheesebridge society is a lie, and how the lounge singer you’ve been cozying up to is really a man in drag. You ignore her, often staring her directly in the face while babbling about unrelated cheeses. You (hypothetical Lord Portley-Rind You, that is) are a jackass, and you have zero saving graces.
Even when Portley-Rind finally relents and becomes a doting dad, it’s not out of love. At least, it doesn’t seem that way- more a combination of desperation and resignation that his hat’s filthy anyway so he might as well save his daughter’s life. That feeling of father-daughter closeness The Boxtrolls is shooting for is not earned, and it’s not there at all; unlike ParaNorman, where even after Norman and his dad reconnect, his dad is still skittish with the ghost stuff. He’s trying, though. Not only is that more realistic, but it kindles more warm-and-fuzzy feelings than a mawkish perfect dad reunion ever could.
The Boxtrolls throws a second dad (and a third really) into the mix with Eggs, his Boxtroll father figure Fish, and his actual human father Herbert. This is more convincing than anything in the Portley-Rind household- in fact, an early montage where Fish and Eggs build a music machine is perhaps the sweetest moment in the entire film. But the payoff is lacking. The film seems to build to the revelation that Fish can be just as solid a dad as any related-by-blood father, but before that sentiment’s complete, Biological Dad swoops in and hogs the dad-spotlight for the rest of the film. The Boxtrolls certainly gains points here (especially that montage, which really deserves to be seen and sadly isn’t available on Youtube yet), but it’s not enough to clear the consistently solid dad-learnings of ParaNorman.
There’s one aspect of The Boxtrolls that’s entirely unique, and that’s the film’s take on social class. Cheesebridge has its mega-poor and its mega-rich, while everyone in ParaNorman is your average “house, car and 2.3 children” family. Ideally, The Boxtrolls would have taken that idea and ran with it, throwing out most of this stuff along the way (whether or not you agree that ParaNorman did it better, it’s subject matter that was covered by the same studio just two years earlier). Instead we’ve got two films that, when you strip away the cheese and the ghostly John Goodmans, are built on almost the exact same framework. And only one of those frameworks can be superior.
But if there’s one person who can right this wrong, it’s Matthew McConaughey. He’s starring in the next Laika flick, Kubo and the Two Strings. Hopefully, his presence makes Kubo so weird and True Detective mystically-vague that it doesn’t resemble these movies at all.