The trailer for the upcoming Paddington Bear movie has the anthropomorphic, computer-generated cub cramming toothbrushes into each ear, rooting around for a bit, then removing huge globs of fecal-brown earwax, and proceeding to inquisitively lick them. Seen in a cinema full of small children, this image of Paddington tasting his own earwax elicited cries of, "Ewwww!" Somehow, we're at the point where disgusting a child for entertainment is not only acceptable, but desirable.
My generation – the 20-plus hipster millennial scourge – can probably take the blame. The 1990s were obsessed with this "gross-out" mentality, from Farrelly Brothers' comedies to Tom Green, Ren & Stimpy and those Bloody Zit frozen slushy drinks marketed by Mac's Milk. We were obsessed with anything resembling the muck, yuck and waste dripping out of our revolting preadolescent bodies.
It was probably only a matter of time before this preoccupation oozed into the mainstream, before Paddington Bear would put down the marmalade for the waxy bacterial buildup inside his own ears. We had Robert Munsch's Good Families Don't. Now kids have a half-dozen-plus entries in the Walter the Farting Dog series of children's novels. And the explicit excremental non-obscenity is reflected in reprocessed cultural byproducts, such as Shrek's snarky mash-up of Disney and the Bros. Grimm, and desperate franchise grabs, including Disney's Pixar's Cars: Planes: Boats: Fire & Rescue or whatever, all dismal lessons in disposability.
So, it comes as a substantial relief that The Boxtrolls, the latest children's entertainment, isn't some pandering, fart-obsessed franchise tent pole. It's a felt, funny, bracingly sincere kids' movie. And even more refreshing, it takes as a theme our social fixation with waste, salvage and repackaging.
The Boxtrolls takes place in an imagined Dickensian borough of Cheesebridge, where the upper crust gobble pungent cheeses, while down below, cave-dwelling trolls – who hide their nudity with pilfered boxes, hence "Boxtrolls"– mill about, emerging under cover of night to nip rubbish from the townsfolk. After a small boy is abducted by the Boxtrolls, Cheesebridge falls under the tyranny of Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley, and one of the most intoxicating onscreen villains in recent memory), an unctuous exterminator who hopes to ingratiate himself amongst Cheesebridge's gentry by ridding the town of the Boxtroll blight.
In the sewers and hollows beneath Cheesebridge, the captured feral child named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) believes he's a Boxtroll, suffering an adolescent identity crisis after crossing paths with Winnie (Elle Fanning), a young human girl whose fascination with the trolls' rumoured sadistic rituals is practically fetishistic. It's when Eggs – who is named after the egg box he has outgrown en route to gangly, awkward, painfully human adolescence – attempts to integrate with the human world that The Boxtrolls most fully reveals its charms. Making a mockery of their patrician customs, Eggs doesn't jive with this world of buttoned-down civility, bumbling and self-conscious as he ducks and weaves through one or another social to-do.
Just as the titular Boxtrolls learn to remake the world around them (one of garbage, clutter and messy excess) so Eggs learns to redesign himself. Likewise, The Boxtrolls takes the waste clogging up the core of contemporary culture and refashions it into something of use: a story not just of bogus childhood self-affirmation, but of upheaval and insurrection. And unlike Pixar's Wall-E – another children's movie dealing with the diligent stewardship of garbage – The Boxtrolls isn't about some conservative return to a bygone Edenic state, but about using a culture's existing machinery to fashion something more compassionate; something better.
Regrettably, the movie's painstakingly constructed stop-motion machinery sputters through its last act, bogged down by an extended string of action climaxes and diluted somewhat by hammy "be yourself!" oratory. But the themes of reclaiming and refashioning the detritus of a world grown stuffy and complacent offer warming glimmers of optimism not only for children's entertainment, but for the kids themselves. What better hope for the future generation than for them to manage to make something good of our godawful mess?