The Boxtrolls vs. The Book of Life!
Images from IMDB
There is no real competition here. I loved BoL. I loved it the same way everyone else in the known universe who is not me reacted to Frozen.*
In contrast, I appreciated Boxtrolls more than I really liked it per se. I respect how it expressed a uniquely weird vision. And make no mistake, it is seriously weird. That isn’t precisely a complaint considering I bought my ticket hoping for something as weird-and-wonderful as Coraline and ParaNorman.** The good folks at the Laika stop-motion animation studio aren’t afraid to go scary and unpleasant, and that’s exactly what I like about their product. But this maybe crossed a threshold for me.
While I mostly enjoyed the look and the feel of Boxtrolls, I found some parts almost unendurably ugly and repellent. The icky look of the villains undermines the story’s message of tolerance. I do firmly believe our culture needs more stories about learning to love things that aren’t cute, but this one features trolls that are far cuter than the humans. I spent more than half the running time terribly afraid the movie would go full Jungle Book, but it course-corrected in time to make a nice point about choosing your own path in life. However, that doesn’t completely make up for the fact that the plot jags off on a bizarre, cross-dressing-related tangent, which I wouldn’t mind except that they treat the subject so negatively.
Other than thematic concerns, I just didn’t get swept up in the tale, and I didn’t fall in love with the characters. Frankly, the bratty ginger “heroine” has few redeeming qualities. And it felt overly long even at a slim 96 minutes. It would’ve been an amazing short film, though.
As for BoL, I find I don’t have a lot to dissect with it, so I can mostly sum up my feeling with an enthusiastic recommendation. BoL is definitely more conventional, but it still feels like a breath of fresh air. I loved the colorful visual style that felt textured and almost touchable. The soundtrack is a brilliant mix of original songs and pop music arranged in a traditional mariachi style. And it manages to effectively convey a layered narrative without confusing children. It’s not just a love story, but also manages to have something meaningful to say about family ties, the nature of heroism, and how to draw inspiration from folklore to live a better modern life. All strands weave together magically into a lovely tapestry. If I had one small quibble, I do wish we could’ve spent more time with Maria to get to know her better, but perhaps then the movie would’ve overstayed its welcome with the youngest audience members.
* Note: I actually quite enjoyed Frozen. Please don’t send me hate mail.
** ParaNorman was once itself the subject of an October animation deathmatch, wherein it cleaned the floor with Disney’s shallow re-imagining of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie.