Tag Archives: Elle Fanning

‘The Boxtrolls’: Cheesy Stop-Motion Goodness

The Boxtrolls
Three stars (out of four)
PG (action, peril, mild rude humor)
96 minutes

Hollywood’s animation heavyweights tend to be studios like Disney-Pixar and DreamWorks, which specialize in cranking out cleverly scripted, pleasingly bubbly, brightly colored fables enjoyed by kids and parents alike.

But there’s something to be said for stop-motion animation, the scruffier, more tactile, more exquisite alternative to the computer-generated onslaught of perfect, glossy images served up in films like “Frozen” and “Despicable Me.”

The beauty of stop-motion is found in the medium’s imperfections and quirks. The original 1933 King Kong was all the more lovable because human finger smudges could be seen in his faux fur. Technology has evolved — CG and 3-D printing are part of the art now — but the tradition remains the same.

There’s something makeshift and magical about stop-motion. The mark of the creators who spend hour upon hour painstakingly moving puppets a fraction of an inch remains, breathing humanity into those tiny, vividly lifelike creations.

There’s a pioneering rebel spirit to stop-motion animation that lends itself to the eccentric and the macabre. Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and Aardman Animation’s “Wallace and Gromit” are two excellent examples of this phenomenon.

But no one has pushed the limits of the genre quite like Laika, the studio behind the gorgeously unsettling “Coraline,” with its creepy, button-eyed Other Mother, and the delightful “ParaNorman,” which featured Puritan zombies. (How awesome is that?)

Laika’s latest foray into the weird and wondrously gothic is “The Boxtrolls,” which may not be as dark and hypnotic as “Coraline” or as nuttily hilarious as “ParaNorman,” but will inspire just as much affection from stop-motion fans.

The film is set in the dreary, cobble-stone-paved village of Cheesebridge, where the fromage-obsessed citizens live in fear of their subterranean neighbors, adorably stubby-fingered, snaggle-toothed little scavengers who only emerge at night.

The Boxtrolls are so named because, a la the hermit crab, they don cardboard coverings for protection and modesty’s sake. They’re sweet-natured tinkerers who put the discarded gizmos and gadgets of Cheesebridge to inventive use in their underground lair.

Thanks to the fear-mongering of oily exterminator Archibald Snatcher (richly voiced by Ben Kingsley) and cheese-worshiping aristocrat Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), the townspeople are convinced the trolls kidnap and eat small children. The only one who knows better is Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a young boy raised as a Boxtroll by tender-hearted surrogate father Fish (Dee Bradley Baker).

When the trolls’ numbers begin to shrink, thanks to Snatcher’s aggressive nocturnal schemes, Eggs is forced out of hiding onto the day-lit streets of Cheesebridge, where he uncovers an insidious plot.

Eggs is a likable enough character, as is his spunky ally, Lord Portley-Rind’s feisty, red-headed daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning), but if there’s one thing a movie called “The Boxtrolls” could use more of, it’s actual Boxtrolls.

The jolly little mechanics are featured in a brief introduction and reappear in the film’s raucous finale, but they’re woefully absent for much of the story, which centers around Cheesebridge’s dairy-fueled class conflict and Eggs’ reentry into the village’s snobbish human society.

A scene in which Eggs and Winnie crash a fancy ball, attended by the fabulous and quite possibly cross-dressing Madame Frou Frou, is a lot of fun, but even it could use more troll.

Parents should know “The Boxtrolls” isn’t as potentially scary or disturbing as “Coraline” or even “ParaNorman,” which unexpectedly veered into the realm of child murder. Dark themes are touched upon briefly but with a generous dose of humor.

Visually, the film is a feast for the eyes, embedded with brilliant detail and character design that evokes a garish but mesmerizing oil painting.

A lively voice cast brings a welcome dash of silliness to the proceedings, especially comedians Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Tracy Morgan as a trio of philosophical but confused henchmen.

And the film’s obsession with everything from Gouda to Gruyere plays like an elaborate homage to a certain British stop-motion classic. Cheese, Gromit!

Photo: YouTube

 

 

 

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This Weekend, See ‘Maleficent,’ Skip ‘A Million Ways’

Maleficent
Two and a half stars (out of four)
Rating: PG (Fantasy action and violence, frightening images)
98 minutes

Angelina Jolie has always kinda scared me. Not because she used to wear vials of blood around her neck and sleep with knives under her pillow, but because she’s always been something of a goddess, so chilly and unapproachable. Maybe that’s why she’s perfect as the iconic villain of Disney’s “Maleficent,” a revisionist history of the studio’s own classic animated film “Sleeping Beauty.”

As a kid, the sorceress and her eerie, horned silhouette struck terror into my heart. Jolie melts into the stuff of my childhood nightmares so effortlessly, with cheekbones Marlene Dietrich would kill for and a purr that’s pure, silky evil. “Maleficent” is a surprisingly sympathetic take on the object of my youthful fears, putting a clever enough spin on the gorgeously animated 1959 “Sleeping Beauty” with a refreshingly feminist twist.

The movie imagines a colorful back story for the fairy tale’s famous baddie, envisioning her as the winged, nature-loving guardian of an enchanted forest whose betrayal at the hand’s of an ambitious lover drives her to cast that notorious narcoleptic curse upon an innocent princess. This alternate myth gives Jolie ample opportunity to display many facets of an intriguing character. Clad in leathery black, there’s something of the sexy dominatrix about her but she’s also vulnerable and funny and downright tragic with a magnificent sneer and a killer villain’s laugh.

Unlike co-stars Sharlto Copley, who plays the maniacally paranoid King Stephan, and Elle Fanning, as the simpering Aurora (apparently, it is too much to ask to have two interesting female characters in one movie), Jolie ingeniously underplays what could have been an unbearably hammy performance.

“Maleficent” is heavy on visual effects. It was directed by first-timer Robert Stromberg, a former VFX artist and supervisor. He’s populated the film with an ensemble of obnoxious CGI fairies and cutesy woodland critters. Not all of them are convincing, but Jolie is the only special effect this movie really needs.

A Million Ways to Die in the West

 A Million Ways to Die in the West
One and a half stars
Rating: R (strong crude and sexual content, language, violence and drug material)
116 minutes

There may be “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” but there are only a handful of jokes hilarious enough to send yer whiskey snortin’ out yer nose, pardner.

Writer-director Seth MacFarlane seems to be on to something by playing this Western parody mostly straight. As the title suggests, the film pokes fun at the often lethal living conditions of the 1800s frontier, but the concept proves limited. This ain’t no “Blazing Saddles.”

At first, the sight of villagers in the tiny Arizona outpost of Old Stump perishing in sudden and random ways — getting squashed by a block of ice or gored by a runaway bull —  is mighty amusing, but the well of laughs quickly runs dry. What’s left is a fairly predictable story about a misfit sheep farmer (played by MacFarlane) who befriends a like-minded, sharp-shootin’ cowgirl (a game Charlize Theron), only to run afoul of her outlaw husband (Liam Neeson).

The film’s gags are just as irreverent, raunchy and politically incorrect as you’d expect from the creator of “Family Guy” and “Ted” and the Oscar’s most controversial host. There’s a running joke involving the town virgin (Giovanni Ribisi) dating the town whore (Sarah Silverman) and Neil Patrick Harris does unspeakable things to a couple of dandy bowler hats, but there is a general dearth of laugh-out-loud moments. Even a moustache-themed dance number doesn’t feel nearly as clever or strange as it should.

There’s a reason MacFarlane doesn’t usually star in his own films. He’s just too smug to play the sarcastic but likable everyman. But the ubiquitous Harris is a hoot as his romantic rival, the preening proprietor of the local moustachery. There’s also a priceless joke that almost makes sitting through this overlong, underwritten comedy worthwhile, at least for “Back to the Future” fans.

 Photos by Disney, Lorey Sebastian