Yesterday I took my children to see The Boxtrolls. It was my youngest’s birthday the other day and he chose a cinema treat. I was pleasantly amazed to find out that Cineworld do an offer for children on Saturday mornings called Movies for Juniors with tickets costing only £1.50 each. It was also nice to discover that cinemas still show films on a Saturday morning, as I’d formed the impression this had gone out of fashion in about 1965.
Cineworld had one other film to choose from in Movies for Juniors but it looked a bit babyish, and as my juniors are now 8 and 9, a PG movie seemed more suitable. Otherwise, I hadn’t heard of The Boxtrolls, which turns out to have been released in the UK last September. It was one of the few films I’ve ever gone to watch at the cinema purely because it was “on”, rather than because I’d heard anything good about it beforehand, or anything about it at all in this case, so I had no preconceptions. So the last thing I expected to be doing afterwards was blogging about it, but the film had such a superb message that I couldn’t not. (Spoiler warning for the below.)
The Boxtrolls threatened to put me off almost immediately with its grotesque styling and the apparent abduction of a child. Don’t let me put you off, though, as it gets better. The style didn’t improve, as such; everything in this film is ugly, from the characters brutally caricatured to the Tim Burtonesque twisted Dickensian backdrops. I couldn’t tell whether it was live animation or Toy Story-strength CGI run through a steampunk filter, although an easter egg after the main end credits appears to show it was the former. The Boxtroll creatures eat handfuls of chunky insects; an allergic reaction causes an already-ugly character’s face to swell to Elephant Man proportions; someone spits out a gigantic mouthful of cheese… and let’s not get into the leeches. It’s basically gross, and arouses more disgust than hilarity. But the way most of the characters feel, think and behave is worse.
At the start of the film the Boxtrolls are monsters. We know this because there’s a team of “exterminators” out trying to catch them, and the creatures are also blamed for the abduction of the baby – albeit the town’s aristocratic mayor-figure isn’t interested in the child’s fate, still less who took him. The funny green creatures dressed in cardboard boxes are then shown popping up from the sewers around the town in the dead of night, hunting for things: specifically, metal and mechanical objects. Some of these are stolen, such as metal house-numbers off front doors, but the Boxtrolls mostly seem to rummage in dustbins and alleyways for discarded trinkets. One demonstrates skill and intelligence by fixing a broken alarm-clock, another goes around oiling anything that squeaks. The exterminators are three men, two of whom chat to each other and ponder their role as “the good guys”; they decide that’s what they must be because their job is to rid the town of monsters. The third exterminator never engages in conversation, and in fact is clearly insane, trigger-happily shooting anything that moves.
Their leader Snatcher is a vile and unscrupulous caricature, somewhere between the Child-Catcher, Fagin and one of Gerald Scarfe’s teachers from The Wall. Voiced unrecognisably by Ben Kingsley in full East End gangster mode, he and his team operate out of a giant factory-like building accessorised with a furnace. They wear crumbly red top-hats, but the “mayor” (his name is Lord Portley-Rind – his official role isn’t actually very clear) and his cheese-gorging cronies all wear perfect white hats. Snatcher desperately wants a white hat as compensation for “saving the town” from the “menace” of the Boxtrolls, but Portley-Rind is having none of it; the White Hat has to be earnt (or you can simply get one by “being rich”, as one of the White Hat-wearers explains, without irony). When we see how grotesque Snatcher is, and get a glimpse into the Boxtrolls’ industrious subterranean community, and see how little the white-hatted elite care about anything but their cheese parties, and hear how terrified the townsfolk are of the Boxtrolls despite never having seen one, it becomes clear who the actual monsters are in this particular social equation.
The film is an allegory about any government-terrorised modern society, but rings especially true with Britain under the current coalition. To say Snatcher is Iain Duncan-Smith would probably be libellous if only because the comparison makes the Work & Pensions Secretary out to be more pleasant than he actually is. The Boxtrolls could be people on benefits, disabled people, poor people, unemployed people, “scroungers”, immigrants, ethnic minorities, anybody “different” or not playing by the “rules”, or all of these; they may dress in cardboard boxes but are shown by their orderliness, teamwork and desire to quietly get on with their lives to be valuable members of society. Snatcher’s desperation to become part of the elite by sucking up to it through any means possible, and its snobbish refusal to give him the recognition – and white-hatted “good guy” validation – he craves, is telling of both the psychological motivation of a sociopath and of the aristocracy’s hypocrisy (those two words go together so well in fact that there should exist a mashup neologism like “arihystopracy”). The elite will employ the real dregs of society to do their dirty work to weed out what they, the elite, decide are the actual dregs, but the relationship only goes one way. Snatcher even covets the cheese the White Hats spend their days feasting on, despite suffering monstrous anaphylactic shock if he so much as touches the stuff. (My only criticism of the film in fact is its unfair portrayal of cheese as either a luxury of rich wasters or a trigger for monsterdom.)
In a superb twist, the Boxtrolls’ “child abduction” – the semi-mythical “Trubshaw Baby” event on which the town’s fear of the creatures is based – turns out to have been a humanitarian adoption after Snatcher’s team dispensed with the baby’s father for consorting with the Boxtrolls. By contrast with the exclusionary elite and its henchmen, the father, a gifted inventor, embraced the creatures for their ingenuity and treated them as equals, in a symbiotic learning/teaching relationship. The boy grows up thinking he is a Boxtroll, knowing nothing of his real father. The Boxtrolls’ names come from the labels on the packaging boxes they wear, so the boy is called Eggs, while his adoptive father is Fish; later Eggs witnesses Fish being abducted, in turn, by the exterminators, and this prompts him to visit the town disguised as a “real boy” to try and find his “father”. Here he finds the “real people” being spun lie after lie about the Boxtrolls, who, unbeknown to both the people and the creatures, are keeping their lives in check: as long as there is an ongoing war between the two, the people feel protected and the exterminators and their employers, paid for out of their taxes, self-justify by being seen to be doing that protection. It’s a wheeze we’ve all seen so often.
Luckily meanwhile, Eggs runs into Portley-Rind’s daughter Winnie, who with her pink cheeks and gold hair is stylised as the only non-ugly thing in the film. (One other disappointment is that there aren’t many female characters to identify with.) Winnie follows Eggs into the Boxtrolls’ subterranea and is livid at not seeing the “piles of baby bones” and “rivers of blood” propagated by the townsfolk myths. This use of the term commonly associated with Enoch Powell may seem crude, but it cleverly takes a phrase of threat (i.e. “mass immigration will create rivers of blood”, in other words your blood, so it mustn’t happen) and turns it into one of promise (“believe me, these monsters are so wonderfully despicable that they positively bathe in rivers of blood”, i.e. this is already happening and has to go on happening for you to continue to find them monstrous). Neglected by her father, whose idea of parenting is to give her a castle to live in yet not actually listen to anything she says, Winnie and Eggs try to work out how to set the record straight and tell the town the truth about the Boxtrolls. “We need a father!” says Eggs, naively believing that Lord Portley-Rind will help them. Indeed, when they manage to infiltrate a party thrown by Portley-Rind for top society folk, Eggs has a scene revealing himself to the crowd as the Trubshaw Baby, but nobody wants to believe it. Instead the mayor announces that “We were going to build a children’s hospital, but we decided to spend the money on the world’s biggest wheel of cheese.” When this enormous Emmenthal becomes as unhinged as the exterminators and ends up in the sea, white-hatted “good guy” Portley-Rind sighs “We may as well have built a children’s hospital now…”
The final scene sees Snatcher controlling a gigantic steampunk power-loader, having apparently exterminated all the Boxtrolls and now symbolically finishing off Eggs in front of a baying crowd, albeit only on the condition that Portley-Rind gives him his White Hat once he can say Mission Accomplished. Portley-Rind is still reluctant but, like all terrible leaders, gives in to the demands of the crowd, and it’s only when Snatcher’s two chattering henchmen finally realise the only way to become the good guys is to turn tail on their paymaster that the day is saved. Asked to press the button on Snatcher’s monstrous machine that will drop Eggs into a bonfire, one exterminator reflects that “This certainly stretches the definition of ‘hero’,” one of the best and truest lines of the film. The Boxtrolls have not, in fact, been exterminated at all: earlier, Eggs railed at the creatures for not doing more to stand up and defend themselves – an accusation that our society’s most vulnerable may very well be levelling against each other under the coalition’s divide-and-rule ideology – but finally they do. It may be depressing that they only set themselves free at the behest of Eggs, who bears more resemblance to the ruling society than to the Boxtrolls and whom they look up to perhaps like a charismatic political leader, but their self-liberation is nonetheless a positive characteristic, compared to what may instead have been a social uprising with all its attendant blood-spillage.
Having said how superb the film is, I doubt I would go and see it again because it is pretty revolting, as I say. But it is worth seeing, with or without your kids in tow (preferably with), and I am heartened that a children’s film was wise enough to tackle inequality and fascism in such a bold way.