Before The Boxtrolls came out in 2014, it was getting buzz for its creepy Burton-style animation and a same-sex couple shown in one of the trailers. Then it hit theaters and I heard, well, nothing. That kind of response doesn’t really mean anything except that people didn’t go see it in the first place, but I figured it was mediocre and forgot about it. Two years later, I suddenly got interested in puppetry and claymation, and I’ve revisited the movie.
None of the trailers accurately represent the movie’s tone or content, but here’s one for aesthetic (I couldn’t find the early one mentioned above):
A young orphaned boy raised by underground cave-dwelling trash collectors tries to save his friends from an evil exterminator.
The movie is based on the book Here be Monsters! by Alan Snow, a 550-page fantasy novel for young readers — quite a length, but that kind of mix-and-match target audience holds for the movie too. It’s got a rich, gross, steampunk-esque aesthetic. The Boxtrolls’ design is very clever and will attract my fellow office-supply enthusiasts, and the animation is gorgeously expressive. I’d be disappointed with anything less from Laika, the same company behind Coraline, ParaNorman (which had a surprise gay character), and the more recent Kubo and the Two Strings.
The plot is at roughly a middle-grade level, more challenging than a typical animated movie but no surprises for an adult. The themes complicate the plot and give adults something to latch onto, though. There are elements of class struggle, family obligations, STEM, and more, but I was particularly interested in the gender issues. The main character is a young boy, but there’s a fantastic girl character too: Winnie Portley-Rind, with her fabulously ruddy cheeks, authentically girlish shape, pink dress, and obsession with “rivers of blood and mountains of bones.” Love her.
More complicated — and SPOILER ALERT here — is the drag show. Madame Frou-Frou is a celebrity cabaret-style performer with a routine about how Boxtrolls definitely eat children. It’s later revealed, if you didn’t figure it out from the first performance, that Madame Frou-Frou is really Archibald Snatcher, the villain of the piece. He’s a slimy odious violent social climber in his public life, but transforms into a sexpot and is found attractive by several members of the town leadership for performances and parties. There’s some interesting gender commentary in that, especially given Snatcher’s repeated assertion that working his way up to the elite is “what a man does.”
None of that gets unpacked, though, and we’re not given any insight into why he decided drag was his best bet for winning the hearts and minds of the populace. And it’s inherently problematic, because he’s the villain and because the plot culminates with a traditional “You’re the REAL monster” statement, even though it’s not directly connected to his drag performance. I didn’t find it ragingly inappropriate, but not good combined with the widespread presentation of gender-variant people as monstrous in other media, and it’s at odds with the effort toward inclusivity seen in the trailer.
The Boxtrolls seems meant for an older audience, and not just because it has a drag show. Sensitive children will probably be scared at various points, especially the beginning and the climax. (It’s also plenty gross with people eating bugs and getting thrown into buckets of leeches, but that’s probably more an issue for adults than kids). Watch ahead to decide if your kid will like it in the first place, and how you’ll deal with the villainous drag in the second.
There’s a lot to like, though, for these older audiences. The vaguely-steampunk and inventor-y atmosphere, the animation, the awesome little girl, the complex themes without a hard-and-fast “moral.” It’s not the usual “be yourself,” “stay true to your friends” stuff, although those takeaways can be great in other movies. The Boxtrolls is more about being willing to change when the path you’re on isn’t serving you anymore. It’s a slightly more sophisticated version of the “you choose who you want to be” idea, and I appreciate it.