"The Maze Runner" And "The Boxtrolls" Surprisingly Have A Lot In Common
Escape from the box!
There's an accidental but oddly resonant double feature in theaters this week: the stop-motion animated movie The Boxtrolls, opening Sept. 26, and The Maze Runner, the latest YA dystopian drama to triumph at the box office. One's aimed at teens while the other looks to please hip parents along with their kids, but at their centers, both are stealthy portrayals of communities that have accepted oppression as their due, at least until an outsider forces them to change.
Also, they've got a real cube theme going on.
The Maze Runner, like fellow franchises Divergent and The Hunger Games, may ultimately have revolution on its mind, but in the first installment, the characters have no idea what they'd even rebel against. Their memories have been wiped, and aside from their names, they don't remember anything about their lives before they were dropped into the giant labyrinth in which they spend months or years. They've figured out the rules by painful trial and error, and settled into a tenuous peace in the grassy four-walled enclosure at the center of the maze, the only place that's safe.
The most interesting conflict in The Maze Runner isn't between the teenagers and their barely seen captors — it's between new arrival Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) and the others who are focused on escape, and Gally (Will Poulter) and his allies, who've accepted their lives inside. And in a movie in which there's a lot more action than character development, Gally's the most poignant figure, trying, hopelessly, to preserve the status quo, to not do anything that will make the situation worse. If Thomas' fearless investigation into solving the maze seems like the obvious thing to do from the confines of a theater seat, the standard heroic thing to do... well, there's something less comfortably relatable about Gally's sad attempts to placate forces he doesn't understand, to police his fellow maze-prisoners in the hope they'll all be allowed to continue their isolated existence.
It's the creatures of the title that are persecuted in The Boxtrolls, the latest feature from Laika, the animation studio behind fellow stop-motion movie Coraline and ParaNorman. While it doesn't reach the scary-wonderful highs of the Neil Gaiman adaptation Coraline, a modern fairy tale guaranteed to serve as nightmare fuel for current and future generations of young viewers, this new Laika effort (directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi) summons a similar feeling of creepy cuteness, set in the whimsically gothic town of Cheesebridge, where everyone is obsessed with cheese and a hat-based class structure.
The Cheesebridge residents have been told the boxtrolls are baby-eating monsters, and have accepted a nightly curfew while the evil exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) and his henchmen attempt to keep the streets safe. But the boxtrolls are actually ingenious scavengers who've outfitted a cavern for themselves underground using castoffs from the world above. The baby they supposedly devoured has actually grown into the orphaned Eggs (Game of Thrones' Isaac Hempstead-Wright), who thinks he's one of them, and like them, constantly wears a box, the former contents of which serve as their names.
In the Cheesebridge social structure, the White Hats are the aristocrats who seem to spend more time snacking together than doing much ruling. Still, the red hat-wearing Archibald is willing to go to incredible lengths to join their ranks, despite being allergic to cheese. The boxtrolls are rungs below the ordinary citizens, harmless untouchables who are demonized as boogeymen in stories and songs, used as a scare tactic in order for Archibald to leverage himself into a higher position.
And, poignantly, the boxtrolls won't fight back, and don't even think to. They retreat into their boxes like turtles when the exterminators come near, hoping they'll go unseen, but otherwise continue in their existence of underground living and dangerous nighttime excursions into the streets above for supplies. They sleep stacked together in a giant cube that slowly shrinks over the years as their colleagues are picked off — as they're apparently slowly being exterminated.
That's a lot of darkness and vague societal metaphor for a children's film, and unlike The Maze Runner, The Boxtrolls isn't aimed at savvier teens, though plenty of older viewers will find something to like in its Tim Burton-y vibe. The boxtrolls may be marvels with mechanical things and adorable, loving surrogate parents for Eggs, but there's something perturbingly non-human about the way they passively react to aggression — they're like the stop-motion troll equivalent of slow lorises, curling up and hoping they're not seen being their only recourse. You want to root for them, but they seem so resigned to their fate.
The Boxtrolls, like The Maze Runner, has a hero to shake up the system, as well as a girl accomplice, Winnie (Elle Fanning). Happyish endings are had, days are saved, and The Boxtrolls even ties everything together with a nod to the running metacommentary from two of Archibald's sidekicks, voiced by Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, who wonder if they're the good guys or not. But the central populations of both movies echo each other in an unusual and unanswerable way — what to do when people (or trolls) aren't willing to come to their own defense? You can't always count on there being an intrepid boy wonder to coax them into changing their ways.