I try my best to avoid anything involving Ricky Gervais, his acerbic comedic style and cynical public persona not exactly being, and you’ll have to excuse the expression, my cup of tea. In November of 2011, however, he did write an intriguing article for Time magazine discussing the general differences between British and American humor, which, according to him, are directly correlated to how each nationality is raised on a sociological level. “Americans are brought up to believe they can be the next president of the United States,” he writes. “Brits are told, ‘It won’t happen for you.’”
Gervais goes on to explain that, while we Americans understand irony just as much as Brits do, we’re far less likely to utilize it in our everyday lives with our friends and loved ones.
I bring this up because the concept of humor was very much on my mind as I watched The Boxtrolls, the newest 3D stop-motion animated offering from Laika. Here is a film that’s noticeably British in its approach to comedy, mixing satirical observations about class and family with the macabre, the rude, the eccentric, the deadpan, and just a touch of the absurd, all within the context of a traditional fantasy adventure in which an unlikely hero must save the day. It is, technically speaking, a family film, although children – on either side of the pond, but definitely here in the U.S. – are unlikely to appreciate or even understand many of the jokes, and there are select visuals, lines of dialogue, and plot points that more prudish parents will probably take issue with. Having said that, family films must by definition have adults in mind as well as children. And just because they’re children doesn’t mean they should be played down to.
Adapted from the novel Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow, the plot of The Boxtrolls is founded on the idea that Boxtrolls – little green monsters that live in underground caves, travel through sewer pipes, and wear cardboard boxes as clothing – emerge at night to pick through garbage, salvage mechanical trinkets, and rework them into wacky inventions. They do this in a Victorian English hillside community called Cheesebridge, where the locals not only value wealth and distinction above all other things but also are obsessed, as the name suggests, with obtaining and tasting all manner of rare and pungent cheeses. They have also been conditioned to fear and despise Boxtrolls ever since one was spotted kidnapping a baby ten years ago. A strict curfew is in place: Get indoors by sunset, or risk getting snatched and eaten alive by Boxtrolls.
We quickly learn that Boxtrolls aren’t at all the nasty, carnivorous beasts they’ve been made out as, since the baby they took, for reasons I can’t give away, was raised into a happy boy. Because the Boxtrolls name themselves after whatever food or item is printed on their boxes, the boy was dubbed Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright). It isn’t at all explained how a boy raised by creatures that communicate through unintelligible squeaks and gibbers maintained his ability to speak nearly perfect English, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter; what does matter is that Eggs’ friends, most notably his pseudo-father Fish (voiced by Dee Bradley Baker), have been rounded up by the sinister and aptly-named Archibald Snatcher (voiced unrecognizably by Ben Kingsley), whose evil scheme to climb the social ladder of Cheesebridge is in no way hampered by the fact that he has an extreme cheese allergy.
Helping Eggs rescue his friends is a plucky young girl named Winnie (voiced by Elle Fanning), who becomes strangely, almost disturbingly disappointed when she discovers that Boxtrolls don’t eat people, and that their lair contains neither a river of blood nor a gigantic pile of bones. She’s the daughter of Cheesebridge’s de facto mayor, Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris), a clueless man utterly incapable of giving anyone the time of day regarding anything if it doesn’t somehow involve cheese. If a child is kidnapped, for example – like, say, Eggs was ten years earlier – he wouldn’t bat an eyelash. If, however, you happen to be delivering a wheel of cheese the size of a monster-truck tire, you have his undivided attention.
There is an undeniable sweetness to this movie, as the relationship between Eggs and his Boxtroll friends makes clear. Nevertheless, it’s always intertwined with the sour. Let us take a closer look at Snatcher; with grotesque proportions, rotten, crooked teeth that are repeatedly exposed, greasy hair that hangs off his head in straggly ropes, and noxious greenish skin, he’s undoubtedly one of the creepiest and most disgusting characters in any family movie of recent memory. Let us also consider droll yet dark side conversations between two of Snatcher’s equally grotesque henchmen (voiced by Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade); although one such scene cleverly reveals the stop-motion animation process, some may not appreciate that it leads the characters into a vaguely nihilistic discussion over fate and free will. If you plan on seeing The Boxtrolls, you must be prepared for that specific brand of humor. I’m sure Mr. Gervais would approve.