Viva la animation: ‘The Boxtrolls’ gets political

As the Oregon studio's latest hits the multiplexes, we track LAIKA's three-step trajectory from self to world concerns

Archibald Snatcher is rampaging through Cheesebridge in an armored vehicle, declaring that “the streets are safe now!” The weight of the steam-spouting contraption crushes cobblestones, and pedestrians scatter. Neighbors peep nervously from their windows. (Hmm. How near is Cheesebridge to Ferguson, Missouri?)

“They drag us away and we do nothing,” fumes Eggs when his community is raided, his guardians taken into custody. (Wait, are box trolls those “illegals” we keep hearing about?)

Earlier this month, Hillsboro-based animation studio LAIKA unveiled its third 3-D stop-motion feature film  The Boxtrolls for family and friends* in advance of the September 26 release. Despite fanciful trappings, regency garb, and English accents, the plot’s parallels to recent news are downright spooky, and it makes no secret of rooting for the masses, the under and middle classes.

Young Boxtrolls hero "Eggs" leads the unwashed masses out of oppression. No, seriously.

Young Boxtrolls hero “Eggs” leads the unwashed masses out of oppression. No, seriously.

More about the kid flick’s politics shortly, but first, for those less familiar with LAIKA, a brief history:

Currently named after a cosmonaut dog and led by Travis Knight (Nike mogul Phil Knight’s son), the company has deeper Oregon roots as the former Will Vinton Studios, which produced phenomenal claymation like The Little Prince, The Adventures of Mark Twain and the California Raisins. In the early 2000s, Vinton experimented with two pitifully short-lived stop-motion** TV series, The PJ’s and Gary and Mike, perhaps leading to the takeover/rebrand by then-shareholder Phil Knight.

By 2005, the newly-named LAIKA began production on Coraline, the first-ever stop-motion film to be shot in 3-D, based on a Neil Gaiman book. And they nabbed the director of 1993 cult classic The Nightmare Before Christmas, Henry Selick, to head up the project. (“Wait,” you ask, “didn’t Tim Burton—” No, actually. Burton was Nightmare‘s creator and producer, but Selick directed. It’s a sore point for some.) To further associate itself with the Nightmare brand, LAIKA acquired the rights to retrofit Nightmare for a 3-D video re-release and brought many key members of Nightmare‘s crew onto the Coraline crew. Needless to say, during production of Coraline, there was a lot of discussion about how to revive Nightmare‘s spirit—and replicate its success.

  • Thus, Nightmare begat Coraline, with Selick at the helm.
  • Then Selick moved on (temporarily) to Disney, and Coraline begat ParaNorman, the brainchild of Coraline storyboard artist Chris Butler.
  • Then Norman begat The Boxtrolls—sort of. LAIKA had considered its source text, Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters!, even before green-lighting Norman. Once Norman wrapped, the studio dusted off Monsters! and put Graham Annable, another story-boarder, in the director’s chair.

By promoting from within and retaining a core cadre of artists, LAIKA has intentionally created cohesion and flow across its growing filmography. On the other hand, its three feature directors are coming from different places, literally. Selick’s American, Butler’s English, Annable’s Canadian. Has that influenced how their films see the world?

The three films’ three main characters—in order of appearance Coraline, Norman, and the Boxtrolls hero dubbed “Eggs”—are uniformly white, western “tweens.” Yet the themes they confront seem to be…well, maturing, from Coraline’s shameless self-interest, to Norman’s conflicted peacemaking, to Eggs’ selfless, convicted activism to uplift the downtrodden.

Coraline: self-preserver

Consider (if you’ve seen her) Coraline, the personification of petty annoyance. She’s just been forced to move to a big old house in a boring town, where she has to go school-shopping (yawn) with her mother (ugh), strangers mispronounce her name (eyeroll), her parents don’t pay her enough attention or buy her delicious enough groceries (yuck). In a Through The Looking Glass-like conceit, she enters another world where alternate versions of her parents and neighbors are more attentive and indulgent and fabulous, until they turn on her with definite intentions to imprison her and a possible desire to eat her. She courageously battles her foes to (near) death, then returns slightly more gratefully to her regular life. Coraline’s ordeal helps her appreciate her boring old real parents, mostly because she’s safer with them. The moral takeaways? Look out for #1 or lose out completely; don’t trust anyone who seems too good to be true.

Norman: negotiator

In contrast to the whiny, fortunate Coraline, Norman’s got real problems. He’s bullied by humans and haunted by ghosts. On top of that, he learns that he’s the only person who can quell a zombie uprising in his town’s graveyard. With martyrly pluck, he confronts the zombies and learns that they’re not even that evil, just confused. In life, they were Puritans who did at least one terrible thing: they sentenced an accused adolescent witch to death. Centuries later, that girl’s ghost can’t stop reanimating them as a form of revenge. The zombies, still wearing powdered wigs and thumping Bibles as they crawl out of the grave, are caricatures of despotism in tattered vestiges of authority. (I realize the Puritans were American…but British empire much?) They’re more doddering than forbidding, and they cling to Norman to buffer them from the angry townspeople.

ParaNorman‘s storyline upsets the good/evil binary to raise legitimate questions about justice. It suggests that as justice has a statute of limitations, evil has an expiration date, and eternal damnation is too strict even for the worst offenders. It pulls a page from Frankenstein by sympathizing with all sides and suggesting that the mob is the only real monster. Furthermore, it reveals the current source of unrest, the ghost girl, as a former victim whose destructive actions stem from her loss and pain rather than from pure malice. Once Norman counsels her, she calls off her attack, and the film ends in a rapprochement. The takeaway here? The problems are bigger than the individual, and go back further in real-life history. Everyone and no one is to blame. Hatred and injustice create a vicious cycle that needs to be broken—not by war, but by diplomacy.

Eggs: advocate

Now meet “Eggs.” We don’t know his birth name, only that he is “the Shropshire baby” whose alleged kidnapping has created paranoid hysteria in his hometown of Cheesebridge (Lindbergh baby, anybody?). Rumored to be eaten by boxtrolls, the baby was actually rescued and raised by them. The boxtrolls are a literal underclass, speaking broken English, living underground, and eking out a makeshift existence with leftovers they scavenge from their city’s trash. Their adopted baby wears their traditional garb, a box, and takes his name, “Eggs,” from its label. Eggs’ primary guardian is Fish, and their close cohort is Shoe.(LAIKA has already lent these characters to PSA’s that encourage foster parenting, setting footage of the grubby box trolls and their cute baby with a voiceover that reminds adults that “foster kids don’t need perfection, they just need you.” Similarly, the first Boxtrolls trailer gave a soft nod to LGBT parents, declaring that families come in many forms.) The boxtrolls’ digs are a sort of DIY commune, decorated with salvaged, mismatched materials, with minimal privacy and housekeeping. (Migrant workers’ quarters, maybe? Or Occupy?)

Eggs, the son of an inventor, inherits a DIY spirit from both nature and nurture, and the thing he eventually decides to “do himself,” is save the boxtrolls, who need saving from a monster created by Cheesebridge’s imbalanced oligarchy: Archibald Snatcher. Above the manhole covers that boxtrolls huddle under, the denizens of Cheesebridge are further stratified into social classes.

“White hats” are the ruling class—mannered and aloof, consumed by consuming the finer things. They’re big into cheese (In metaphorical rap parlance, they’re “getting that cheddar, Baby,” or in more literal Portland terms, they’re actual “foodies,” lifestyle junkies more concerned with souping up their own sustenance than supporting others’ survival). The white hats’ indulgence in cheesy luxury isn’t in itself a problem, except that it skews their priorities. Lord Portley-Rind, for example, neglects his daughter Winnie and dismisses all civic concerns, even as dangerous envy foments among the “red hats,” the white hats’ presumed immediate social inferiors.

“Red hats” are laborers and civil servants. They speak cockney in contrast to the white hats’ “king’s English.” And Snatcher, a de facto chief, “aspires” to, well, snatch a white hat and be invited into the cloistered halls of the rarefied cheese-eaters. His scheme to get there throws the poor boxtrolls under the bus (or more aptly, the carriage wheels). He figures if he stokes Cheesebridge’s fear of boxtrolls, and then takes credit for eradicating them, he’ll rise. (Hi, Arizona lawmakers.) He gets grudging assurance of this from Lord Portley-Rind. Snatcher has three henchmen: one a deranged hatchet man, two slightly slow blokes just following orders. The latter two end almost every raid they execute by nervously reassuring each other:  “We’re the good guys, right?”*** The fact that they have to ask clues us in that they’re not. The fact that they do ask hints that there’s hope for their eventual redemption. (Ferguson cops, please ask the right questions.)

Before the movie ends,

  • Eggs enlists an ally, Winnie****, to try to rescue the boxtrolls and influence her father, a policymaker, on their behalf
  • The white hats demonstrate their ultimate disconnection from humanitarian concern in several ways
  • The white hats also refuse to promote Snatcher despite all his “hard work,” putting the lie to social mobility
  • Snatcher rampages through the streets crushing innocents, then seizes power by force and metaphorically and literally overfeeds himself

…and…to say any more would be too many spoilers. But are you picking up what The Boxtrolls is laying down? I am, and I find it rather timely. It’s not all about Eggs, and it’s not all about getting that cheddar; it’s about saving the whole produce sector.

 

For more notes on LAIKA films’ aesthetics, check out AW’s Boxtrolls preview.

 

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A. L. Adams is associate editor of Artslandia Magazine and a frequent contributor to The Portland Mercury.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

 

 

*Writer is an alumnus of LAIKA’s Coraline film crew.

**What, technically, is stop-motion? Animation created by compiling still images of three-dimensional elements—like Claymation, but not necessarily with clay. Nowadays, most stop-mo combines handcrafted mixed-media elements with computer-generated, 3D-printed plastic ones and robotic, magnetic metal machine pieces. Or clay. Hey.

***Nerd note: one of these men, Mr. Pickles, seems a distorted caricature of Norman creator Chris Butler, following a stop-mo tradition of putting one’s “puppet self” in the picture that goes back as far as MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch, where animators were reportedly invited to craft their own effigies for crowd scenes…as long as they did so on their own time.

****Winnie, by the way, has a filled-out body beside Eggs’ stick-thin shape. In Coraline, the girl was a stick figure and the boy was husky. Way to mix it up to foster a kid audience’s healthy body image.

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