This week, I got to see both “The Maze Runner” and “The Boxtrolls” in theaters.
“The Maze Runner” is a science-fiction movie based on the book The Maze Runner by James Dashner, in case anyone reading this doesn’t know. I haven’t read the books, so I can’t speak to the quality of them, but I did make it to see the movie.
Thomas wakes up in an elevator that is headed upwards. When the elevator stops, it’s opened, and he’s pulled out of the box into a grassy grove. The inhabitants of the grove are all boys, close in age to him. Thomas doesn’t remember anything at first, not even his name. Eventually, his name surfaces in his memories. As he struggles to figure out who he is, he starts to learn about the place he’s found himself.
The grove is surrounded an all four sides by imposing walls. Every morning, the walls open, revealing a maze. At night, the walls close. The boys living in the grove can hear the maze rearranging itself and creatures they call grievers moving about within the maze.
Everyone has a job, they grow their own food, tending the crops. They do some hunting. They build shelters. A select few of the boys, the ones who are fastest, become Maze Runners. They go out every morning when the walls open and try to find their way outside the walls. No one who ends up trapped in the maze at night survives, or, at least, they don’t come back to the grove.
As Thomas starts to get his memories back, he tries to get the other boys in the grove to follow him out into the maze. He doesn’t believe that they can stay there forever, even if he has a difficult time explaining why.
Dylan O’Brien is Thomas. He makes Thomas feel authentically like a confused, scared kid, although he’s got an adult’s measure of determination. The character doesn’t seem to have any truly spectacular abilities except for his certainty that they need to get out of the grove and get through the maze.
Newt, played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster is a more compelling character. He’s affable and starts talking to Thomas and showing him the ropes almost immediately. Answers in this world aren’t readily forthcoming, but Newt tries to explain to the best of his ability why things are the way they are inside the walls. He at least gives some reasons why not everyone is out running the maze all the time.
Then there’s Teresa, the only girl in this movie. She’s the first girl who’s been sent to the grove, and, at first, the boys there don’t seem to know what they should do with her. Kaya Scodelario is the actress playing Teresa. When Teresa emerges she has two vials on her, one is administered to another boy in the grove as an emergency measure. The other is given to Thomas. She gives a minimal info dump to Thomas, and that, essentially, is the end of her functionality as a character. She spends the rest of the movie getting dragged along with the pack of boys and screaming. She is the harbinger of doom for the band of young men in the grove and the end of everything they have known as safe. I suspect that I should be grateful that her name isn’t Cassandra. I am guessing that if more of these movies get made, the books, after all, are a series, Teresa will turn into a love interest for Thomas and a point of conflict for the other boys (not that she wasn’t bring dramatic tension already).
My frustrations about the single female “lead” in the movie being a superfluous afterthought are only compounded by the appearance of the only other woman in the movie. Patricia Clarkson plays Eva Paige. The least spoilery thing that I can say about this character is that she’s a scientist. Her character is coldly calculating and sleekly professional. From this presentation, you can tell exactly who her character is going to be. It’s okay to make the assumption, this movie isn’t exactly full of surprises.
My disgruntlement about the presence of women in this movie aside, there are a few good things that I can say about it. If you’re looking for a starter dystopia to cut preteen or younger teen teeth on, this one makes for a fairly decent introduction to the subgenre. After all, you’re not going to start them off immediately with “Mad Max” (except my dad kind of did, but then dystopia wasn’t as big back then as it is now). Come to think of it, Dad actually started me off with “Planet of the Apes”, so I think we’re good on the My First Dystopia front.
There are some scenes that are going to be scary intense for some viewers. Several scenes involve encounters with grievers and they are some nasty arachnoid-ish critters. I wouldn’t want to meet one in an alley and I’ve never had much issue with insects or insectoid type creatures. I can think of at least one scene that was bordering on gratuitously slimy and disgusting. This movie does have a body count, and not all of that body count is adult. There are also some depictions of an illness that is a bit gruesome in its effects and, given a cast of characters that inspire at least some empathy, is going to be worrisome for anyone who can sympathize with being sick and in pain.
The special effects are pretty good. The movie definitely has and maintains a visual style that is fitting for the mood of the story. It’s not a pretty movie, but it was never meant to be. That mood can be a little relentlessly dark. “The Maze Runner” is not a cheerful movie. Do not go to it expecting to leave with a smile because you will be sorely disappointed.
People who have read a lot of science-fiction or have read “The Most Dangerous Game”, Heart of Darkness, or Lord of the Flies will not find anything new here. The story line isn’t particularly innovative, the characters aren’t ground-breaking, and there are no new conceits to add to the “kids trapped in a bad, bad prisonesque situation” trope. Still, despite all of this, I did not feel like my movie ticket money was wasted. Maybe it was the strength of the special effects or the fact that, if nothing else, the actors did a good job with the material they were given, maybe I was just in the mood for a movie that ended up being kind of bleak. I’m not sure that I can pinpoint something that specifically lead me to the conclusion that “The Maze Runner” was okay.
That’s not the case for “The Boxtrolls”. I am totally unashamed to admit that I have been looking forward to this movie from the very first previews, showing just a few sculptures of individual Boxtrolls and Loch Lomond singing “Whole World”.
“The Boxtrolls” is also based on a book, Here Be Monsters! By Alan Snow. That book I have read and do own and highly recommend. It’s hilarious, a little silly, and very endearing. It’s got a helping of nonsense added to the fantasy that makes it both whimsical and engaging. That’s as much as I’m going to plug the book, though, because this is, after all, supposed to be about the movie.
Laika studios made “The Boxtrolls” using stop-motion animation. Their animation style is beautifully fluid, losing all that charming herky-jerky character that makes the Bumble in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” so endearing. It’s stunning how effortlessly the characters in “The Boxtrolls” seem to move. The human characters in the movie look like caricatures, but anything that is supposed to be a fluid moves like it is, and all of the characters move according to recognizable laws of nature and anatomy.
“The Boxtrolls” certainly has a distinctive look to it. The boxtroll characters themselves, who are named according to the picture on their box, for example one is called Shoe and another is called Fish, are oddly cute. I expected them to seem a little bit grotesque, but they’re honestly some of the most adorable trolls that I’ve ever seen. They have a slightly disgusting habit here or there, but they’re good intentioned and gentle creatures who just want to make things. I know people like that, more than a few of them are artistically minded. I suspect that I myself am probably like that, too.
The movie takes place in the city of Cheesebridge, where the elite governors of the city wear immaculate white hats and do all of their important business in the tasting room. Their important business seems to consist almost exclusively of eating cheese. One night, a baby is purportedly stolen by Boxtrolls, starting one man, Archibald Snatcher, on a campaign to eradicate them entirely from the streets of Cheesebridge.
The boxtrolls themselves don’t understand this campaign. They do take things out of the garbage and off houses, as well as things that they find in the street, but they don’t take babies. They certainly don’t eat humans. In fact, boxtrolls eat bugs. They use their boxes, which double as clothing, to hide in when they are frightened or believe that they’re in danger.
A boy named Eggs grows up being raised by the boxtrolls, particularly Fish and Shoe. He helps them collect parts for their building projects and helps them build. He and Fish even learn to play music on some unusual improvised instruments. Overall, Eggs’ life is a happy one. He loves his family and they love him.
Snatcher’s continued drive to exterminate boxtrolls leads to a rapidly diminishing population. As more and more boxtrolls are captured, Eggs begins to realize that they have to do something to try to make it stop. The moments where he tries to convince the other boxtrolls to join him actually makes some touchingly profound statements on grief and how individuals handle it. Once action becomes absolutely necessary, Eggs must go above ground and brave Cheesebridge in the daylight, something he has never done.
“The Boxtrolls” has the strong-willed Winnie, daughter of Lord Portly-Rind. She’s a little bit obsessed by boxtrolls, but who can blame her, she’s been hearing stories about them all her young life. They’re the gruesome, creepy fairy tales that have been told to her to urge her to behave. Winnie encounters Eggs with boxtrolls at first, then, later, she meets him again. Winnie is a little bit bossy, but she’s also doing everything she can to make herself heard. The adults around her, especially her very important father, ignore what she has to say, treating her like she’s nothing more than a babbling child. Rather than allow herself to be shuffled to the background, Winnie takes action and tries to help Eggs. She’s a smart girl and proves to be resourceful. Elle Fanning does a great job with the voiceover work.
Eggs is voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright. He’s naturally very clever, but he has learned the boxtrolls’ inherent skittishness. Still, he recognizes that when it comes to saving the family that raised him, it’s going to have to be him that takes action. He tries to listen to Winnie, but he doesn’t have enough experience with humans to know how to behave around them. He doesn’t blend in, making his first all-important encounter with the cream of Cheesebridge society an utter disaster.
The vocal cast includes a host of talent that will be recognizable to anyone who watches British television or is a fan of British cinema. Lord Portly-Rind is played by Jared Harris with a wholly appropriate pompousness that absolutely makes the character, he sounds exactly like he looks like he should. Two of Snatcher’s henchmen are voiced by Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, who give pitch-perfect deliveries and a magnificent sense of timing to their characters. Ben Kingsly provides the voice for Archibald Snatcher, making him greatly disturbing with a sinister growl that makes the fine hair on the back of the neck stand upright. There is a third henchmen in Snatcher’s crew and his voice is done by Tracy Morgan, which was a surprise for me in the credits because his voice was completely unrecognizable as his own. Toni Collete had a few lines as Lady Portly-Rind and she sounds both imperious and scandalized. Her voice is cool and cultured. Maurice LaMarche lends his very familiar voice to one of the lords of Cheesebridge, and last, but certainly not least, Simon Pegg has a crucial voice part as well.
Archibald Snatcher is an obvious and disgusting villain, but “The Boxtrolls” isn’t intended to be a scary movie. There’s a magnificent chase scene and some moments of suspense, but any kids that can handle the average Halloween special or “Curse of the Were-Rabbit” are probably going to be okay to see this one. Death is implied in the movie. It’s not really shown. Probably the most disturbing part of “The Boxtrolls” is when the audience finds out what happens when Archibald Snatcher eats cheese. It’s alarming for his henchmen and just as alarming for the viewer.
“The Boxtrolls” is a great story and it’s animated beautifully. If you’re going to go and see it, make sure to sit through the credits if you can. There’s some wonderful payoff there at the end involving henchmen. It’s probably going to be a little bit more fun for the adults watching than the kids, but the kids will still get a giggle out of it. This one is one of those movies that has just as much for adults to enjoy as kids. The henchmen aren’t just standard thug-types, there are some philosophical discussions that will probably take many adults watching back to their logic and critical thinking or philosophy classes if they had them. However, the movie does that in a way that’s much more fun and entertaining than any of my classes in those areas ever were.
If you want a movie that’s fun and especially entertaining as well as being visually amazing, check out “The Boxtrolls”. If you’re in a more somber mood and want to see something darker, then “The Maze Runner” will probably be your movie.