Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 36 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating(0-5): 4.5
More in number than the hairs of my head
are those who hate me without cause;
many are those who would destroy me,
my enemies who accuse me falsely.
What I did not steal
must I now restore?
Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi (who brought us the quirky Coraline and ParaNorman,) team up with writers Irena Brignull and Adam Pava in this intriguing stop-motion animated film based on the book Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow. Here there be an excellent film, I can say with just a little reserve. The stop-motion animation is top notch, and the message aimed against demonizing and persecuting those who are different is one that both children and adults need to take to heart. The script might better have explained better at the beginning the plight of its young hero Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), but those who pay close attention to what follows will be able to figure things out.
The fantasy takes place in Victorian era Cheesebridge, a village built around a tall spire of a mountain towering over the plains. Here everyone wants a white hat that will give them the status and wealth to sit and eat expensive cheeses. Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) and his cronies (with smaller white hats) love to sit at table during the night and devour rare cheeses while outside men in red hats, under the guidance of the nasty Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) hunt down the boxtrolls. These little creatures are regarded by one and all as baby snatchers who eat their victims in their underground lair. Archibald makes a deal for a white hat with Lord Portley-Rind when he can prove that he has destroyed all the trolls. To keep the citizenry aroused against the trolls Archibald spreads the malicious lie that the boy who disappeared ten years earlier was abducted and eaten by the trolls.
Actually the trolls are peace loving little creatures with baldheads and big teeth, most of them with skin of bluish or greenish tint. They wear old cardboard boxes the way that turtles wear their shells. Like turtles they use the boxes for protection, quickly withdrawing into them at the sign of any danger. To minimize risk they come up from their underground home only at night, when they gather discarded items on the streets. Ten years earlier a father in great danger gave custody of his baby to the trolls—the identity of his attacker is revealed later on in a flashback. As the child grew, thinking himself a troll, the contents of his box gave him his name, Eggs. Yes, this is the boy who was supposedly stolen and eaten by the trolls. How he, in company with a girl named Winnie (Elle Fanning), the saucy daughter of Lord Portley-Rind, saves the day for his persecuted adopters who have always treated him with love and kindness makes for enjoyable viewing.
The context of the film is darker than that of such films as Maleficent or Frozen, some of the crowd scenes in which Archibald Snatcher, dressed as a woman entertainer, stirs up the passion of the prejudiced crowd similar to the way that Hitler turned his people against the Jews. Thus we are dealing not with just the evil of one villain, but the corporate villainy of a whole people arrayed against a weaker group. In Cheesebridge just a tiny minority wear white hats and are able to snack on expensive cheeses, but no one notices this because their hostility is directed against the trolls. The fate that Archibald intends for the trolls is the same as that for the Jews during the Holocaust—a fiery oven. Also the cooperation between Archibald and Lord Portley-Rind, who actually despise one another, will remind adults knowledgeable of history to the early alliance between the young Hitler and the wealthy industrialists, each seeking to use each other for their own ends.
It might seem that this is a bit too heavy a message for a children’s film, but I believe the filmmakers succeed at a child’s as well as an adult’s level because there are so many funny moments in the film. Eggs, thinking that he is a boxtroll, even though now he is too big to withdraw his body into his box. Winnie, down in the trolls’ shelter trying to play the heroine about to be eaten by “the monsters.” One of the three stooge assistants of Archibald Snatcher who, during a moment of reflection, thinks he is one of “the good guys.”
Later, when they are ordered to lower Eggs into a fiery furnace, one of them, his conscience aroused, repeats the line said by hundreds of thousands of Germans 70 years ago, “We’re just doing our job.” Two of the three stooges are drawn over to the side of good, suggesting that there does reside in most people a residual of goodness to which we can appeal. Archibald Snatch, however, has gone so far down the path of evil that only a miracle could change him, and so he meets the fate of those who have sold their souls for wealth and power.
Would that more films produced for adult audiences be as thought provoking as this delightful parable!
This review with a set of discussion questions is in the Oct. 2014 issue of Visual Parables.