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Jacked in the Box

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Universal Pictures

MOVIE REVIEW
The Boxtrolls (2014)

“The Boxtrolls” is a movie aimed at children. It is also disgusting and immoral. It breaches a line that should not have been crossed — and it’s been rated PG in both Britain and the United States. What the hell are the rating boards thinking? Plain and simple, “The Boxtrolls” is propaganda for the war machine. The normalization of torture in cinema — and most especially cinema for children — has got to stop. Someone has to say it.

Boxtrolls are “The Borrowers”-type creatures who live in the sewers of Cheesebridge, a city on a hill. They come out at night to scavenge trash. One night, they scavenge a baby. Mr. Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley) sees his opportunity to move up in the city and gains a promise from Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) that he will earn a white hat and all the cheese-related privileges thereof if he eliminates the Boxtrolls from the city. Over the years, Snatcher and his sidekicks/henchmen (voiced by Tracy Morgan, Nick Frost and — by far the best thing about this movie — Richard Ayoade) hunt down Boxtrolls, who simply vanish without trace. In the fullness of time, the snatched baby grows up to be a boy called Eggs (Isaac Hemphill Wright) who one night accidentally meets stroppy young Winifred Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning).

To talk about this movie properly without revealing every single plot twist is difficult, so this review is going to talk about the overarching themes without going into specifics. Simply put, this is the darkest movie aimed at preteens this critic can remember seeing. Loss, tragedy and peril are perfectly fine in a kids’ movie: Whole cities of children can slave for the child-catcher; Bambi’s mother can get shot; Dumbo’s mother can suffer in her cage; fathers can be absent, brutal or adopt children in order to take over the world or possibly even try to sell their kids for a boxing robot; the Russian prison system can be the setting for an interspecies love story with Danny Trejo singing “Working in a Coal Mine.” But the key difference is that none of those movies had darkness at their very core.

Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi have created a stop-motion animated film which normalizes torture, sells a majority of its cast into decades of slavery, shows the premeditated murder of all of the slave characters, causes a child character extreme suffering via multiple graphic attempts on his life (starvation, burning alive, attacking him with a cricket bat, attacking him with a wrench) and a town reacting in horror when they realize their favorite singer is actually a drag queen. Just let that sink in for a moment.

One character is revealed to have endured more than 10 years of physical and mental torture, causing him to lose his mind — which the torturer brags about. Characters that disappear and are thought lost are actually kept alive as slaves for years at a time. The villains believe they have murdered a lot of people and show trophies from the bodies as proof. Grown men physically attack a 10-year-old boy more than once. And then there’s the unpleasant nastiness about the drag character, which is meant as comic relief; ha fucking ha.

There’s also the fact that neither Winifred’s living nor Eggs’s vanished mother are ever mentioned by anyone, while fathers get all the attention. Complaining about the sexism in this film is demanding women have the chance to torture and murder too, but it’s indicative of the very many problems this movie has. Why doesn’t Winifred talk to her mother about the things she knows? Instead of whining about all the things her father doesn’t do, why doesn’t Winifred realize her mother can care for and protect her? But if someone thought properly about the women in the film, the whole insanely offensive plot would have collapsed; and the film would not have served its evil purpose.

The press screening was full of families. At various points — especially involving fire — overfrightened children had to be removed, but otherwise the cinema was quiet in what felt like a stunned silence. Who cares that the animation is clever and there are a few good jokes when it’s all in service of teaching children that torture is just another thing that sometimes happens? In the end credits, Mr. Ayoade’s character gets a moment of meta-awareness that raised the only genuine laugh of the entire film.

Does Focus Features genuinely think that kids will be so enchanted by a new type of minion that they will not be afraid of the humans in this film? Does a new type of minion deserve to exist when its only purpose is to suffer and slave? Do they really think audiences are so stupid as to be fooled by the marketing into thinking this is entertaining? What the hell was everyone involved in this project thinking?

This is supposed to be a kids’ movie. This is supposed to be a fun and light piece of entertainment to keep the smallest members of our society amused for a few hours, once, twice or 10,000 times until the DVD breaks. This is supposed to be a story adults are telling for a reason — to educate or enlighten or amuse — so that kids will learn something interesting or funny about the world in which we live. To call “The Boxtrolls” a failure on every front is not quite going far enough.

THE BOXTROLLS

Opens on Sept. 12 in Britain and on Sept. 26 in the United States

Directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable; written by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, based on the book “Here Be Monsters!” by Alan Snow; director of photography, John Ashlee Prat; edited by Edie Ichioka; music by Dario Marianelli; production design by Paul Lasaine; costumes by Deborah Cook; produced by David Bleiman Ichioka and Travis Knight; released by Universal Pictures (Britain) and Focus Features (United States). Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. This film is rated PG.

WITH THE VOICES OF: Ben Kingsley (Archibald Snatcher), Isaac Hempstead Wright (Eggs), Elle Fanning (Winnie), Dee Bradley Baker (Fish/Wheels/Bucket), Steve Blum (Shoe/Sparky), Toni Collette (Lady Portley-Rind), Jared Harris (Lord Portley-Rind), Nick Frost (Mr. Trout), Richard Ayoade (Mr. Pickles), Tracy Morgan (Mr. Gristle) and Simon Pegg (Herbert Trubshaw).

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