The Boxtrolls / by Charlie Brigden

the-boxtrolls-300x300.jpg

By Karol Krok boxtrolls

Dario Marianelli was first brought to film music fans' attention after replacing Goran Bregovic on Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm. For this project, he created a massively orchestral accompaniment that was quite hard to come by in film music at the time. There was no stopping the Italian musician - the Oscar nomination for Pride and Prejudice the following year was a proof of that. The ensuing collaboration with director Joe Wright spawned four films so far (with another one currently in development) and resulted in the Best Score Academy Award win for Atonement in 2008. The composer continued creating highly sophisticated works for smaller dramas but also tried his hands on larger canvas -  both V for Vendetta and Agora were great examples of versatility. The latest project, The Boxtrolls, marks his first attempt at scoring an animated feature.

The stop-motion film tells a story of a quirky town of Cheesebridge whose residents very much value this particular type of food above anything else. There is another group living underground... a quirky bunch of box-hiding trolls perceived as a threat to children. All of that because of one unfortunate incident from years back when little boy was apparently kidnapped and killed. The truth is different, however. He is, in fact, raised by those creatures as one of them, and named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright). Ben Kinglsey voices Archibald Snatcher, a pest contractor with aspirations for entering higher levels of society. To prove his worth, he methodically depopulates sewers of those boxtrolls. The only chance to save them from annihilation is Eggs and his new friend Winnie (Elle Fanning).

Opening track on the soundtrack album (‘The Unspeakeable Has Happened’) is ominous, its low brooding strings recall Stravinsky’s Firebird. Cliff Eideldman alluded to this ballet in a very similar way in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. For an animated feature, the tone of this music is quite dark, but that has probably more to do with the very old-fashioned choice of orchestrations. Indeed, the entire score sounds like it belongs in the 1940’s - has a very noirish and mysterious quality that’s not often found in today’s film music. This textured and ambivalent approach is perfect background for this fairy tale, in which nothing is what it seems.

The duality is perfectly embodied by the main thematic idea, a music box-like ascending line which gets two resolutions. One of them is the the sweet idea, which is often associated with different music boxes collected by those adorable creatures (‘Eggs’ Music Box’). The other one represents boxtrolls in their evil legendary incarnation and it often appears during the ferocious confrontations with films’ villain. This ambivalent theme finds its way into pretty much every corner of this score and seems to form a basis for some ostinatos in a few late action cues (‘Last Battle’), as well as one dancing sequence ('Slap Waltz').

The pest contractors receive their own musical identities. There is slightly comical theme for Archibald, a melody that makes two notable appearances in ‘One Busy Night’ (accompanied by accordion) and ‘Snatcher And This Stooges’. Eggs’ longing nature is illustrated by yet another clarinet-led thematic idea - it can be heard in ‘Broken Eggs’ and ‘I Was Given To Them’. Marianelli derived it from a music box tune of a teddy bear that main character receives early in the story. On album, it makes only one appearance in its original form (in the middle of ‘Eggs’ Music Box’) where composer intertwines it with main theme.

The impressive aspect of The Boxtrolls score, and something composer has perfected since his early attempts on The Brothers Grimm, is the action music - furious, densely orchestrated and really exciting. There is a balletic quality to writing in pieces such as ‘The Boxtrolls Cavern’.  It contains a wondrous theremin statement on main theme that is slightly reminiscent of Danny Elfman's work and the wide array of unorthodox percussive effects adds an incredible amount of flavour to an already rich orchestral foundation. Further examples, such as ‘Rooftop Chase’ or ‘To The Rescue’ contain tense and angry fully symphonic writing that should make John Williams proud. The almost militaristic snare-driven ‘I’m Sure I Am Delicious’ recalls Alexandre Desplat’s similarly tense writing in this years’ The Monuments Men. The previously mentioned 'Last Battle" is a phenomenal culmination, on both visceral and thematic levels. Wonderful stuff.

Apart from purely orchestral elements, numerous source music cues appear throughout the film. ‘Cheesebridge Funfair’ presents a one-man band piece composed for a scene where Eggs decides to go outside in broad daylight for the very first time in his life. During this sequence, “The Boxtrolls Song’ is performed. It is a anti-pest propaganda sung by Sean Patrick Doyle and composed by Eric Idle. The amusing opera-like ‘Quatro Sabatino’, named after a fictional four male band, appears several times in the film, once even quoted within the actual score ('Broken Eggs'). It has amusing lyrics comprised of different Italian cheese names only. This piece, composed by Dario, illustrates main characters' growing up sequence. The album closes with four Loch Lomond songs, which play over the end credtis. ‘Little Boxes’ is particularly lovely.

The Universal-owned Back Lot Music released a very comprehensive soundtrack album, covering the vast majority of music composed for this film. It’s an easy and pleasant listen, certainly among the very best 2014 has to offer. Given the unusually strong competition from other major titles released so far this year, this statement says a lot. Dario Marianelli is among most talented orchestral musicians working in film medium these days. His amazingly detailed orchestrations are virtually unmatched in the industry. Quite typically for him, the pieces from The Boxtrolls never feel like “cues” but properly composed orchestral miniatures. In that respect, this work recalls another wonderful score from 15 years ago - Michael Kamen's The Iron Giant. One can only imagine what kind of wonders will this composer conjure for the upcoming Pan.

The Boxtrolls is out now from Back Lot Music

Read our interview with Dario Marianelli