The Boxtrolls (USA: 2014): Occupy Cheesebridge?

It’s not often that I want to rate a children’s film based on its politics. But since The Box Trolls is a movie about a human boy who convinces a socially despised and persecuted group to fight back, a political consideration is in order. Visually, the movie is outstanding, if a little dark with its brown color palette. There is probably enough goofiness in the movie to amuse children, and there is a little bit of a love story with a message about the importance parenting and being yourself that should make it feel good. But it doesn’t succeed. Those messages end up looking like small curds when what we want is a big slice of cheese.

The movie is set in the city-state of Cheesebridge. At the top, the city is ruled by a small group of men who by sumptuary law and custom have the right to wear white hats. Their lives are simple: they eat cheese while putting off important municipal expenditures such as replacing bridges and building orphanages and children’s hospitals. They mean well, I suppose. They would do good works. They certainly propose doing them at their meetings, before tabling the discussions for meals of exotic cheeses.

Enter the villain, Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley), the town exterminator. By accent and profession, he is not of the elite class, but my goodness, he wants to be. He is a social striver who has an agreement with Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris): if he can rid the town of Boxtrolls, he will be able to join the elite. He also is obsessed with cheese, although he is ironically allergic to it. He also loathes the men whose table he wants to join The Lord Portley-Rind agrees to Mr. Snatcher’s proposal, although he doesn’t want Mr. Snatcher to succeed. He wants fewer Boxtrolls but there is a question about whether he ever intends to honor the agreement.

The Boxtrolls, of course, are the most adorable, modest little beasts around. They wear boxes so that they can slip inside them to avoid being seen. Their instincts are to hide when seen, flea when chased, and never hurt anyone. With the exception of the insects and worms they live on, they wouldn’t hurt a fly. Their economy consists of whatever they find in refuse that might be useful if repaired a little or turned into parts. They are collectors of broken things. One of the things they have is ten year-old human boy, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) who they have been raising the best they can. They aren’t raising him to be a Boxtroll; it is really all they know.

For ten years Mr. Snatcher has been besieging the Boxtrolls. Although he hasn’t found their lair beneath the city sewers, one by one, he has been taking them away. The city is under a curfew and afraid that the Boxtrolls steal children. Mr. Snatcher has been diligently reminding the townsfolk to stay inside each night. Unbeknownst to them, he is also doubling as the city’s foremost entertainer, a temptress famous for reenacting the kidnapping and murder of the Trubshaw Baby at the city pageant this year. Yes, the city has a festival devoted to the alleged murder and kidnapping of a small boy, allegedly at the hands of the Boxtrolls, and the pageant has been secretly infiltrated by the man who stands to benefit the most from the city’s continued persecution of them.

The boy, of course, isn’t really dead, and the rest of the story involves him convincing the town to end the persecution while convincing the trolls to defend themselves. He doesn’t succeed at the former so much as Mr. Snatcher’s ambitions get the best of him and he publicly self-destructs after revealing too much about his plans.

I am not certain that this story is going to sit well with American audiences. While the villain is certainly dastardly in his villainy, at times it appears that his greatest crime is to want to be a White Hat, even if he is the only town official shown carrying out his duties. The social climber isn’t a villain in the American class-system: he’s considered to be a normal person. We’re supposed to want to end up in a better class than we started in. The message throughout the film is that Mr. Snatcher doesn’t belong at the elite table. But then neither do the Lords of the town, who fail to offer convincing reasons why they wear those hats when pressured by Mr. Snatcher.

Those Lords, who have allowed Mr. Snatcher to keep the populace in fear for a decade with his fear pageants and curfews, remain in charge of the town in the end, even after the lies have been revealed and the Boxtrolls can live openly. The townspeople probably could do better, but they seem content in the end to just live peacefully with the Boxtrolls while the oligarchs continue to hoard cheese, orphanages and bridges be damned. No matter what happens, the people like being ruled by boobs and fools, I guess.

“Be who you are already! (But don’t actually try wear a white hat that doesn’t belong to you).” A parable for our times, perhaps, but hardly an inspiration.

**1/2

IMDB Page: Boxtrolls

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