Editor’s Note: The provided quotes have been transcribed from a post-screening Q&A with Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi of Laika Studios (“Coraline,” “Paranorman”) that took place on August 20, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.
“The shadows moved slowly across the lane that ran behind Fore Street, revealing a heavy iron drain cover set among the cobbles. Then the drain cover moved. Something was pushing it up from below.”
If you were to peer from your window into the rainy streets of Cheesebridge late at night, you may catch a glimpse of a boxtroll slipping from the grates of a drain cover and dashing into a dark alley.
Wholly ugly, with skin of blue-green and giant mouths full of randomly placed teeth, it’s easy to see how the 19th century English town has so easily villainized the boxtrolls. But if you were to follow them into that alley, you’d find them harmlessly plundering the trash for junk – forks and spare parts and cans that they take back underground to experiment with.
Looking closer, you may spot one troll that doesn’t look like the others – one that looks almost human. Taking the name of the product originally stored in the box he wears day and night around his waist, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) sneaks around with the boxtrolls unaware that he’s a human boy. But when he meets Winnie (Elle Fanning), the daughter of a wealthy bureaucrat, he forges the first boxtroll-human alliance in years in an attempt to stop an evil exterminator (Ben Kingsley) from wiping out boxtrolls for good.
Where Spike Jonze worked with only 338 words when adapting the beloved children’s story “Where the Wild Things Are” into a feature-length film, co-directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi looked to compound Alan Snow’s dense, 550-page novel “Here Be Monsters!” into a manageable children’s narrative.
It took a little while, but we almost always knew that the heart of the story was about the little boy who lived with Boxtrolls underground who has to come above-ground to find his place in the world and that the villain had a similar story, kind of a mirror image. It was a guy who wanted to find the better place in the world and was willing to do anything to get it. So we just had that dynamic duo of Eggs and Snatcher who seemingly wanted similar things…but were going to go about it in different ways.”
The one-of-a-kind Laika Studios developed “The Boxtrolls” and yet again proves their animators and artists are second to none. It quite nearly takes a post-film sequence that shows the artists at work with the puppets to believe that the stop-motion animation is real. The overall mood achieved by Annable, Stacchi, and art director Curt Endrie is timeless in its ability to set loose the imagination with unparalleled animated glee.
Travis, our CEO, wants all the films to have a dynamic range of emotion; he believes you definitely have to have those darker moments and scary moments, or the lighter, happier, and more triumphant moments don’t have any power. He loves an animation, he’s an animator – his primary goal is to make films that he loves and that families will love…and he runs the studio.”
The handcrafted and characteristically ugly look of the human’s faces and the leaky, grey streets all add to a vivid animated picture with heaps of personality. It’s a minute-by-minute struggle to accept what we’re looking at here are photographs. Occasionally, a real-world identifiable object will work its way into the frame to remind you that the on-screen craft isn’t the result of computer animation. In terms of fluidity, the technology is now on-par with CG, but the rougher aesthetic given by the stop-motion animation is worth every grueling minute of work. The production totaled at eighteen months with animators producing just a few seconds of finalized footage a week.
[One of the animators] probably worked on [a single scene] for the entire 18 months to produce a little under two minutes of footage when it’s all said and done. There’s a lot of gratification right here, when it’s all over.
It was definitely 18 months of terror through a lot of it…every morning it felt like I was driving in and about to write an exam I had no way I could study for because every day it was a new problem – you never knew what it was going to be. One thing that’s nice about this form of animation is that in those 18 months, during the first week of shooting you shoot a shot of a puppet standing on a street corner, walking down the cobblestone street, and it’s just like shooting a live action. You have dailies, and you see that shot done and it’s done. In other forms of animation, like hand-drawn animation, you do rough drawings and then they have to be cleaned up and then they have to be inked and painted – it’s a long time before you get to see a finished product of that character over a background.
In CG, like a Pixar film, there’s low-res…and then there’s more textures in the clothing, but it takes months before you see a final image. On this, it’s very gratifying because along the way you get a taste of what the final movie is going to be – just when you’re getting tired or you’re not sure if it’s going to work, you see some amazing bit of animation on the set and you go, ‘Oh wow, maybe we kind of do know what we’re doing.”
When it comes to story, though, “The Boxtrolls” is decidedly less impressive. The setting is a precise, evocative one, but the plot is from the vault of vague children’s fables. Eggs and the boxtrolls are in desperate need of even a fleeting sense of adventure, but their battle against the evil exterminator Archibald Snatcher is largely incidental – resulting in a few epic moments but little in the way of a clearly-defined structure for kids to connect with.
There’s also not one element or line ready for children to latch on to and repeat for months on end. In fact, with a cast of side characters that include Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Tracy Morgan, Richard Ayoade, most of the enjoyment from the film’s comedy is going to be had by adults. Two of the funniest bits – one being an off-the-wall visual pun, the other a character similar to Steve Carell’s Brick from “Anchorman” who loudly yells single words – seem exclusively aimed at adult viewers.
And that would be fine, as we should support the notion that PG-rated films don’t need to exclude adult audiences, but “The Boxtrolls” is, when it comes to narrative arch and dramatic ambition, still a children’s film. The flip-flopping between target demographics goes even deeper, though. In the Tim Burton/Henry Selick tradition, “The Boxtrolls” is genuinely scary. Snatcher is cruel and evil beyond the limits of a cartoonish archetype, and his obsession with gaining access to an exclusive group of cheese connoisseurs despite his terrible allergy to dairy products is taken to some truly disturbing places (to the admitted delight of older viewers).
Weaved in to the world of Cheesebridge is the human’s peculiar love for cheese. Cheese makes their world go round, and has worked its way into all aspects of culture. A man bursts through a door yelling, “What in gouda’s name is going on out here?!” But while the cheese fanaticism played for a great number of jokes, it doesn’t offer very deep satire in the way you may expect from something like “Shrek,” nor does it reveal the mad invention of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s “Delicatessen,” with which the film shares a similar aesthetic.
When it comes to casting, Isaac Hempstead Wright, known best as Bran Stark in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” voices Eggs with a great heroic tone, but falls flat when amping up the emotion into fear or anger. There’s one crucial scene in which Eggs’ desperate pleading needs to sell an emotional attachment but instead comes off as annoying.
The giant cast of British comedians that lent the film with a few lines here and there makes for top-notch voice work in the peripherals, but it’s Ben Kingsley’s Snatcher that steals the show. His villainous rantings are practically iconic in their utter committal to the caricature of evil. Kingsley is entirely cut loose, and it’s a giddy experience to behold – made all the more better by the distorted animation of Snatcher’s face.
A big thing with The Boxtrolls that we benefitted from, having done Coraline and Paranorman, was the scale of the film. We’ve been calling this a hybrid film because at its core it’s all stop-motion and puppets and physical sets, but our CG department has gotten so good at working with the art department – everyone making the physical stuff – and we wanted to make this film feel bigger. We used [the CG department] to do a lot more set extensions. Hopefully you felt it when you watched it; it doesn’t feel like a typical stop-motion film, because as charming as it is, most stop-motion movies do feel like you’re kind of trapped on a small stage because that’s all you can build. With this film we tried really hard to create large vistas and make spaces feel a lot wider and bigger and give the film a unique flavor.
“The Boxtrolls” is a bit too intense for younger viewers, and a bit too childish for adults. So who is this film for? Its artistic achievement is invaluable and it’s an essential, stunning rendering of an animated world for cinephiles interested in CG-alternatives, but without the raw emotion of a masterpiece animated film, “The Boxtrolls” will be mostly talked about for its formidable art style over the sweeping adventure it could have been. The world is worth revisiting though, and it would be a treat to come back to “The Boxtrolls” in something like a subversive, Christmas-themed sequel that fully links the potential of the art with the content of the story.Continue Reading Issue #19
September 26, 2014
1 hr. 37 min.
Animation, Adventure, Comedy
Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi
Ben Kingsley, Jarred Harris, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Toni Collette, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Dee Bradley Baker, Simon Pegg, Steve Blum, Maurice LaMarche