The filmmakers and stop-motion animators at studio Laika (previously of 2009's "Coraline
" and 2012's "ParaNorman
") are shaping up to be the offbeat, less mainstream cousins of Pixar, creating worlds of dark aesthetic whimsy at the service of thematically heady, provocatively relevant ideas. Patient children of about seven and up may take to "The Boxtrolls," but it is older audiences who will be able to fully grasp the wealth of sociopolitical and religious metaphors permeating just beneath the surface. That helmers Graham Annable (a story artist on "ParaNorman
," making his directorial debut) and Anthony Stacchi (2006's "Open Season
") refuse to pander to any one demographic is a good thing. They and screenwriters Irena Brignull and Adam Pava (loosely adapting the novel "Here Be Monsters" by Alan Snow) have a story to tell, and each decision made is with an eye toward satisfying this vision. Putting a checkmark next to every item on the list of how best to satisfy younger audiences simply isn't of concern to them. Quality is quality, and the right audience will find and appreciate the film in due time.
In the Victorian anthill of a city called Cheesebridge, Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley) has terrified the townspeople for over a decade with wretched, gruesome stories about the supposedly deadly boxtrolls who live beneath their cobblestone streets. All those years ago, the creatures allegedly kidnapped and ate the Trubshaw baby, and ever since there has been a strict curfew set in place to control the scared populace. For reasons that will soon be uncovered, Archibald and his redhat exterminator henchmen (voiced by Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Tracy Morgan) have gotten it all wrong; the toddler not only survived, but has grown up under the care of the kindly boxtrolls. Now named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), the boy has no idea he is a human being until he journeys above ground to find captured foster parent Fish (Dee Bradley Baker) and happens upon an inquisitive little girl named Winnie (Elle Fanning). If Eggs and Winnie are to save Fish and the rest of the imperiled boxtrolls, they must first outsmart Archibald and find a way to convince the residents that these subterranean dwellers mean them no harm.
"The Boxtrolls" will not be for everyone. It is icky, grimy and sometimes unpleasant, but it is also absolutely fascinating in its oddness. Flashes of Monty Python-esque inspiration notwithstanding, the picture is not quite like anything elsean achievement for sure in a filmic landscape where being different isn't always embraced by Hollywood. It makes sense, then, that this particular tale involves outsiders who are turned into pariahs by a community's fear-mongering leaders. Meanwhile, Archibald's redhat cohorts have carried out their master's every whim, trained to blindly follow authority until an epiphany sheds dismaying light on their presumed heroism. As Eggs receives a crash course in proper etiquette as he assimilates to the outside world and uncovers a dastardly plot involving snatched boxtrolls, Archibald edges ever closer to earning the highest honor of a white hat and a spot at the cheese-filled Tasting Room headed by Winnie's oblivious father, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris).
Ben Kingsley (2013's "Ender's Game
") indelibly revels in Archibald Snatcher's manipulative villainy, a truly bad guy who will do anything to get ahead. It is Isaac Hempstead Wright (2012's "The Awakening
") and Elle Fanning (2014's "Maleficent
"), however, who give the proceedings a shot of much-needed warmth. In a place that is beautiful and grubby in equal measure, Eggs and Winnie are virtuous freedom riders who stand up when no one else will to fight for what they know to be right. Fanning is especially charming as Winnie, a curious child neglected by her father and cheerfully drawn to the visions of horror and carnage that have been planted in her mind about the title hobgoblins. Personality-wise, the boxtrolls themselves are fairly interchangeable, docile beings whose growls and grumbles remind of the wall troll in 1985's "Cat's Eye." It would have been nice to give them more to do, but they serve their purpose.
Stop-motion is the most time-consuming of all forms of animation, each frame painstakingly staged by patient artists working toward a radiant end result. While "The Boxtrolls" does not match the lingering heartbeat found within "ParaNorman
," it is a quirky, imaginative entertainment all the same with an enormous amount to say about parent-child relationships, the trouble with reading a book only by its cover, and the dangers of believing everything one is told without asking questions first. The sights are meant for drinking in, from the conception of the vertically swirling Cheesebridge to the fog-drenched roads and corridors to the character designs that look like animated embodiments of Quentin Blake's Roald Dahl book illustrations. Eggs and Winnie are a couple of winning protagonists, and the wild, idiosyncratic, fearless story they've found themselves in is sophisticated in its eloquent moralizing and vulgar audacity. "The Boxtrolls"and, for that matter, Laikaboldly play to their own tune, and theirs is an uncommonly wonderful voice that too seldom gets heard in today's American-made animated features.