“The Boxtrolls” is the latest movie from the Oregon-based animation studio LAIKA, the same studio that previously gave us “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.” Based on Alan Snow’s best-selling fantasy adventure book “Here Be Monsters,” it tells the tale of a group of clever and mischievous creatures known as Boxtrolls who scour through the garbage cans of humans and create all sorts of ingenious inventions that illustrate just how inventive they are. At the same time, they are deeply misunderstood by the human society living above them, and the powers that be have hired Archibald Snatcher, who has constantly spread rumors of just how much of a threat they are, to rid them all from society.
“It was such an unusual book,” Travis Knight, the President and CEO of LAIKA said at the recent press day of what drew him to the book. “It kind of had these whispers of some of the great juvenile literature of Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl and a really unusual and absurdist sense of humor like you would see in a Monty Python sketch or something like that, and it had such a strange world and unique characters. I thought that if we could crack this book we could have something really interesting for a film, but it’s over 500 pages. It’s a huge book and there’s all kinds of weird characters and environments, and distilling all that down to a 90 minute film story was the thing that took the better part of those 10 years.”
Elle Fanning, who is still coming off the box office success of “Maleficent,” plays the feisty go-getter Winnie Portley-Rind, one of the main characters in the film. Although Winnie may come off as spoiled at first, she eventually shows her vulnerable side as it becomes clear that her father is constantly ignoring her and she’s always trying to get his attention. Now, I have seen many movies over the years which deal with parents who never give enough attention to their children (especially when they are teenagers), and “The Boxtrolls” appears to be the latest example. I told Fanning that this seems to be a common theme in movies which has been carried from one generation to the next, and she agreed with me on that.
“Yeah, you think animated films in general are just like for kids; that’s just kind of what people think,” Fanning said. “But the reality is that the parents take their kids and then the parents love it (laughs). Also, for Lord Portley-Rind, Jared Harris’ character, in a weird way a wakeup call for parents too. Make sure you’re like paying attention to your kids, so that’s in there for them (laughs).”
After Fanning left, we were introduced to Isaac Hempstead-Wright who voices the role of Eggs, an orphaned human who is adopted and raised by the Boxtrolls. He described being on the set as something out of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and that it was a very “magical experience,” and he described working with Sir Ben Kingsley as “pretty intense.”
Eggs reminded me a lot of Charley Boorman’s character of Tommy from “The Emerald Forest,” in that both characters are adopted by people or creatures that live in the fringes of society and have their own way of speaking to one another. For Wright, he sees Eggs as being more like Mowgli from “The Jungle Book.”
“He’s kind of like a mythological feral child whose been raised by wild animals and, by virtue, has a better connection to humanity,” Wright said. “He’s been raised away from the poisons of society and especially Cheesebridgian society which is rife with cheese snobbery and class snobbery. The interesting thing is that he has been raised by wild animals, but they are not wild animals in a sense because they lack one pretty key wild animal aspect which is the bravery and the gung ho-ness that you would expect to see because the Boxtrolls are these very timid and cowardly scaredy cats. Eggs has this sort of best of both worlds in that he has the human side and the caring Boxtrolls side.”
For me the big question was, how did Eggs learn to speak English? The Boxtrolls have a language of their own that is not easily decipherable by outsiders, and Eggs was brought up from infancy around these creatures which led me to believe that he would communicate to others in the same way they did. I was able to get a good answer to that question from Anthony Stacchi, one of the directors of “The Boxtrolls.”
“I always thought we had numerous versions where we went into detail,” Stacchi said. “He used to listen through the pipes to people having conversations above ground. The Boxtrolls used to specifically steal textbooks for him to teach him how to do it, but it all started to add up to, ‘Well he’s not happy underground, that’s why he’s listening to people above ground,’ but that’s not true. The Boxtrolls are bringing him textbooks but they don’t really tell him who he is, and that doesn’t make sense. I always believed that they had a lot of record albums down there. We only get to see that one record album that they listen to which happens to have an original song written by Dario (Marianelli), and it’s four of these pretty well known musicians and opera singers in London singing the names of Italian cheeses.”
“You see in the background there’s a ton of albums,” said Graham Annable, the other director of “The Boxtrolls”, “some of them are good like ‘How to Speak English Correctly (laughs).”
Lastly, was biggest thrill for everyone that day with the appearance of Sir Ben Kingsley who voices the main bad guy of “The Boxtrolls,” Archibald Snatcher. It doesn’t matter if he’s doing a live action movie or an animated one, Kingsley is still brilliant in creating such an evil and unforgettable villain as well as a very complex one. When asked if he likes it when people say his character is very evil, Kingsley replied that he sees Snatcher as being “very ambitious.”
“Ambition can have no limits, and it can be a very corrosive thing,” Kingsley said. “On one level this film does explore displacement, and there are some great things explored in the film that are very gently offered to the audience. It’s not like hitting you over the head, but there’s so many things going on in this film. I think he (Snatcher) feels displaced. Class and hierarchy are very important in this film. He wants to join a club that will never have him as a member, and he sort of knows that. It’s a weird challenge that he sets for himself, and the more that he’s rejected the more he’s in pain, and the more he’s in pain the more he’ll kick back, and that’s really where the violence and the villainy comes from; from a desperate hollowness inside him that will never be filled.”
Hearing Kingsley talk reminded me of an interview he did about “Sexy Beast” in which he played one of the nastiest characters of all, Don Logan. In that interview, he said that when it comes to playing a bad guy you have to play the wound of the character because that is what defines that person. I brought this up to Kingsley, and he looked pleased that someone mentioned it.
“You find the wound and you love it, you understand it, and you then see the terrible levels he uses to cover it up,” Kingsley said.
Before he left, someone said to Kingsley that he was very unrecognizable vocally in this movie and that if she had never seen his name in the credits, she would not have known it was him. I told Kingsley that he sounded an awful lot like Timothy Spall, and he got a big kick out of hearing that.
“I think there’s a bit of Timmy in there actually because I worked with Timothy at the Royal Shakespeare Company many years ago. We were in some wonderful plays together. “Nicholas Nickelby” we were in together and “Merry Wives of Windsor” we were in together. I loved working with Timothy. He’s a very special actor. There’s a bit of Tim in there, yes (laughs).”
After hearing all the filmmakers and actors talk about making “The Boxtrolls,” there was no doubt in our minds of just how much work and dedication they all put into this project. Considering the number of years it took to get this movie made, that’s saying a lot.
The Boxtrolls opens September 26th and is rated PG.