Review – Odd Things Come In Weird Packages (“The Boxtrolls”)

Put out by the superb stop-motion animation Laika studios, who gave us the amazing ParaNorman in 2012, this strange and overall unamusing tale of creatures living in the sewers that raise a human is billed as a kid’s movie, but the children’s matinée I attended yielded only a smattering of laughter from the kiddies.
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Based on Alan Snow’s novel, Here Be Monsters!, the story begins with a Boxtroll named Fish (so named for whatever the picture indicated on their box is showing) kidnapping a boy (the “Trubshaw baby”) and bringing him to the Boxtroll underground lair, where the others live beneath the town of Cheesebridge. These creatures are peaceful, playful, steal only mechanical parts to build things, and speak in grunted gibberish (like the minions in Despicable Me). The kidnapped baby, named Eggs (his box has a picture of eggs on it) is lovingly raised by Fish as a Boxtroll and taught English, but how is a mystery, since none of the Boxtrolls speak any. Odd.

Meanwhile, a nasty Boxtroll exterminator named Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley–incredibly voiced) and his looney henchmen, Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade), and Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan), go the lavish mansion of Lord Portly-Rind (Jared Harris), the town’s leader. Archibald is obsessed with becoming a “White Hat”, like Lord Portly-Rind and his politician friends. Forget the fact that these close-minded town leaders spend all the people’s money on buying nothing but expensive cheeses and not on needed things like hospitals. Typical politicians! But I digress…

Archibald makes a deal with the Lord: he’ll exterminate all the Boxtrolls in exchange for becoming a White Hat politician. With the deal struck, the exterminators (or Red Hats, as they’re called) go after the innocent creatures. As 10 years roll by, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) grows up and runs in the night with his “family” until he’s seen by Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning), the slightly twisted 10-year-old daughter of you-know-who. She, along with the entire town, is convinced the Boxtrolls are evil, carnivorous monsters until Eggs meets her and shows her the truth. He needs her help because almost all his family are captured and he doesn’t know where they are.

Together they discover Archibald has sequestered the captured Boxtrolls and forced them to build a giant spider-like walking machine. Predictably, the third act is Eggs finding out who he really is and why he was kidnapped, the Boxtrolls revealing to the town that they’re not really evil monsters after all, and Archibald getting his comeuppance, which I have to admit, scored the only genuine laugh in the whole movie for me. Think Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, only with cheese. 

With an adapted screenplay by  Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, and directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, the storyline is shockingly dark, yet it’s billed as a kids comedy movie. The themes in this movie are overall heavy-handed and, at times, even gruesome. Yes, there are some whimsical moments with the cutsie Boxtrolls and their world, but that doesn’t sustain throughout the rest of the movie. Think of a kids fairy tale movie told by way of a somber Dicken’s novel. There is an attempt to lighten the mood with some humor, but even the humor is strained at times. The laughs, what little there are of them, are very British, low-key, and aimed at adults.

Technically though, it’s an achievement in stop-motion animation that’s awesome to look at. The team at Laika are to be applauded for their tireless efforts in bringing these puppets to life, but jeez-Louise, that story had me groaning! Their Coraline had the same problems: technically wonderful; boring story. I suggest renting their ParaNorman to see how they got it right in both story and animation.   


TARZAN (1999)

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Being a human child and raised by creatures other than human isn’t exactly a novel idea, just ask John Clayton, the Earl of Greystoke. Oh, heck, just call him Tarzan like everybody else.

Yes, there are lotsa Tarzan movies out there, but I thought I’d pick one of my favorites: the Disney animated feature film. With an adapted screenplay by Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker, and Noni White from the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, this familiar story of a human baby raised by apes in Africa is made even cooler by the stunning direction of Chris Buck and Kevin Lima.

Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) thinks he’s an ape, albeit an odd-looking ape, and raised by his loving gorilla mother, Kala (Glen Close). This does not sit well with tribal leader, Kerchak (Lance Hendricksen) who doesn’t like the man-ape until Tarzan is able to kill Sabor, the deadly leopard, with a crude spear and protect the troop. Doing this heroic act gains Kerchak’s respect and cements Tarzan’s place in the group. Tarzan also has his besties growing up: Terk (Rosie O’Donnell) a smart-alecky gorilla and Tantor (Wayne Knight ), a paranoid elephant. ‘Cause ya gotta have those for your comic relief.Soon Tarzan meets and saves a human woman from a gang of attacking baboons. Her name is Jane Porter (Minnie Driver) and she’s part of a British exploration group sent there to look for wild gorillas. Naturally, Tarzan is confused. Why does he look more like her than an ape? Jane gets him to speak rudimentary English and introduces him to her goofy father (Nigel Hawthorne) and Clayton (Brian Blessed), a villainous hunter and scout who’ll stop at nothing to achieve his goal.There’s bungle in the jungle with Clayton wanting to bag himself a gorilla and Kerchak wanting a piece of Clayton as a trophy. Tarzan comes to the rescue, as all heroes do, and saves the day, but not without a life being sacrificed in the interim.

All this action, plus you got the wonderful music of Phil Collins, which was quite the departure for Disney and their usual Alan Menken/Tim Rice-type scoring.The action and story is stirring, the songs are fun and catchy, and this Tarzan doesn’t condescend to the little kids in the audience with constant prat falls or goofiness. It’s played for laughs, true, but there’s a serious side to the story that adults can relate to. Tarzan’s soaring through the jungle is way cool to watch with the combined CG and hand-drawn animation. It’s just alot of fun to watch and listen to, especially if you like the percussion work of Collins.

Tarzan also went on to be a short-lived Broadway musical that lasted a little over a year. Not the most popular of the Disney movie-to-stage transitions to date, but a nice attempt.

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