29 September 2014

Here Be Monsters! Animated at Last

As the movie The Box-Trolls opened this weekend, I thought it was interesting to look at what I wrote about its source material, Alan Snow’s novel Here Be Monsters!, back in 2007:
Snow's art reminds me of the great Quentin Blake's, and most of the fun of the book starts with them. Indeed, it looks like the whole story grew from the illustrations, and Snow was creating animations alongside his manuscript. Some of those short videos can be viewed at the book's homepage, or this page from Atheneum.

And that may be a reason I just wasn't turned on by Here Be Monsters! It feels like the scenario for an animated movie. In that format, the whimsical plot and characters could play out without interference from the prose. The actions are nifty and new, but the descriptions of those actions are flat and the depictions of emotions even more so. (Page 48: "...Willbury asked in a puzzled voice." Page 49: "Arthur looked sad.")

Here Be Monsters! also suffers from a quality shared by a number of classic animated movies: a dearth of significant female characters. By page 100, we've met young foundling Arthur, his grandfather, his powerful and eccentric protector Willbury, four little refugees from the underground, two even tinier refugees--and they're all male. We've glimpsed a secret society of cheese-hunters--also all male.

Sure, there's a woman who swipes at Arthur's artificial wings when he steals bananas from her greenhouse (a quickly vanishing antagonist). There's an unintelligible sea-cow separated from her children (a purely symbolic mother figure). Willbury mentions a female colleague. And the "Taxonomy of Trolls and Creatures" in the frontmatter hints at the eventual arrival of "Rabbit Women," sort of: "Very little is known about these mythical creatures..." Well, that's the problem, isn't it?

Page 110 finally brings the first extended glimpse of the women of Ratbridge:
There were an awful lot of ladies doing an awful lot of cackling. And as they cackled, they tottered slowly down the streets, their bottoms wobbling behind them. Arthur had not seen bottoms like these before. From the way the ladies paraded their derrieres, it seemed that to have an interesting behind was very much the thing!
These ladies are in thrall to a "Fashion Princess" who's obviously a nasty con artist, and just a little less obviously the male villain in drag. And by that point I'd stopped reading.
The book has indeed become an animated feature film. Significantly, it now has a girl alongside young Arthur as one of the main characters, prominently featured in the advertising. At least one review has commented on how the box-trolls themselves are still all male, but at least there was some progress in the intervening seven years.

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