- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

By Mick LaSalle

”The Boxtrolls” is in many ways a beautiful movie, and yet in other ways it’s not very good at all. As an achievement in stop-motion animation, it’s stunning - seamless and detailed, so perfectly done that it’s easy to forget that you’re witnessing skill and not magic. But as a 3-D film, its success is qualified, and as a story - as a fantasy that unspools over the course of 100 minutes - it feels like a throwback to the 1990s.

We’re left with the frustrating spectacle of great skill locked into a formula that’s quite simply unworthy of it. We can be impressed by dazzling visuals and technical brilliance, even as we recognize that, in a narrative art form, those elements are like sauces and garnish. If we dig under the lavish presentation only to find 20-year-old mutton, the best we can hope for is that something unwanted can be made reasonably palatable. That’s what we get in “Boxtrolls.”

Alan Snow’s 544-page illustrated novel, “Here Be Monsters!,” has been streamlined into an animated movie about scrappy underdogs going up against a powerful enemy in order to save their civilization. How many times have you seen that, and how many times do you want to keep seeing it? If the answer is “forever,” here’s your chance.

It is a far cry from “Coraline,” made by the same studio, Laika, using the same animation techniques. “Coraline” was a breakthrough, using animation art in the service of a caustic vision of the modern family. “Boxtrolls,” by contrast, is safe and sentimental and predictable in all ways except its beauty.

Set in Great Britain, “Boxtrolls” tells the story of a severely oppressed minority. Boxtrolls live underground, inside cardboard boxes, and only come out at night. They are timid, very sweet and slightly disgusting. They communicate in grunts and eat anything you might find under a wet cardboard box that has been left outside for a couple of weeks - centipedes, worms, caterpillars. Human beings, of course, are terrified of them and want nothing more than to have them all exterminated.

The movie suggests that fear of the boxtrolls is something being used to manipulate the populace. In fact, boxtrolls are harmless. This is something the chief boxtrolls exterminator (Ben Kingsley) knows, but he doesn’t care. He just hopes to use the death of the boxtrolls as his ticket out of the lower classes and into the highest reaches of government.

There’s something here that feels like social commentary - a disconnected ruling class, an easily agitated public - and yet it’s all both too general and too on-the-nose, a calculated statement, not an impassioned or inspired one.

The boxtrolls exterminator, Archibald, is drawn so as to look a lot like British character actor Timothy Spall, for reasons that aren’t clear. Elle Fanning voices the role of Winnie, the daughter of the richest man in town, who teams up with Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a human boy raised by boxtrolls, in order to set things right. The character writing is typical. He’s earnest, and she’s the usual bossy smart-mouthed little girl, of a kind that will make future generations scratch their heads and wonder how anyone ever found that charming.

About two-thirds into “Boxtrolls,” the story is practically finished, but the filmmakers figure out a way to extend it, whether the audience likes it or not. One gets the sense that directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable have their hearts in the action sequences and not in the characters, and that’s a problem. Not a disaster, but a point of weakness.

One word about the 3-D: See it in 2-D. The atmosphere of “Boxtrolls” isn’t quite steampunk, but it’s grim and murky, and to lay a pair of 3-D glasses on top of that makes the image too dark. Two dimensions is just fine. You won’t lose much, and you’ll gain a brightened image.

Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle’s movie critic. E-mail: mlasalle@sfchronicle.com.

The Boxtrolls: Animation. Starring the voices of Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning and Isaac Hempstead Wright. Directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable. (PG. 100 minutes.)

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide