The stop-motion creations of animation studio Laika bristle with adorable grotesquerie. Its films are full of things you want to pet, and other things that look like they might bite you. Even critters that turn out to be friendly, such as the box-wearing gremlins of this film, are never cute in a pandering way — they live by their own inscrutable rules.
As in Laika's previous efforts, Coraline and ParaNorman, that aura of strangeness makes the animated landscape of The Boxtrolls inviting to viewers both young and old. With this film, directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, the studio cements its reputation for creating uncommonly smart, emotionally compelling family fare. It may not be Pixar, but it does its own thing with great skill.
Loosely based on Alan Snow's steampunk kids' fantasy Here Be Monsters!, The Boxtrolls tosses us into a world that is both absurd and rule bound. The vapid Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris) presides over the vertiginous town of Cheesebridge, where folks barricade their homes nightly against the Boxtrolls. After these scurrying mischief-makers steal and reportedly devour an infant, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) offers to exterminate every last one. His price: He wants to wear a fluffy white hat, like the town's elite, and taste fine cheeses at the lord's table.
Snatcher's aspiration may seem bizarre to us — What's so special about the silly-looking hat? Why is everyone obsessed with cheese? — but to him, it makes perfect sense. He's not the only one with a skewed perspective. Deep beneath the town, in the Boxtrolls' cavern lair, lives a human boy named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) who thinks he is a Boxtroll. Where the townspeople see bloodthirsty monsters, he sees his family.
We soon learn that the Boxtrolls are nonviolent inventors and tinkerers who speak a private gabble and harbor a pathological attachment to the scavenged cardboard boxes they wear like turtle shells. As Snatcher's anti-Boxtroll campaign accelerates, claiming Eggs' loved ones, the boy realizes he can "pass as human." He sets out to spy on the enemy in the upper world.
The Boxtrolls promotes familiar kid-flick messages about tolerance for others and believing in yourself. But it's never cloying, largely because it gives its villains sympathy and shadings. Snatcher, who sees himself as a man with a dream, exhibits more human folly than evil. Meanwhile, two of his henchmen, Pickles and Trout (Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost), offer running commentary of almost Shakespearean drollery, assessing their own moral status. (They also star in a very cool mid-credits coda.)
The film's visual world, a mishmash of costumes and technology from several centuries, is consistently absorbing and often beautiful, for all its Dickensian exaggeration. The human figures sport pear-shaped torsos and spidery limbs, yet there's a painterly quality to the shading of their faces, seldom seen in the stark world of computer animation.
The Boxtrolls combines heart with a streak of Roald Dahl's perversity. It will have special appeal for viewers who get British humor and aren't put off by characters such as a cherubic, ringleted little girl (Elle Fanning) who fantasizes about watching Boxtrolls eat her neglectful parents. But the movie isn't odd just for the sake of being odd. The rigid absurdity of Cheesebridge, like that of Willy Wonka's factory or Alice's Wonderland, may remind older viewers how it felt to be a kid navigating the adult world — so many rules, so few readily apparent reasons for them.
The Boxtrolls themselves make kids laugh because they belong to a world of antic, preverbal play — a world without age, gender or social distinctions — similar to the ever-popular Minions in the Despicable Me films. But sooner or later, we grow up and leave that world, and the movie dramatizes that sometimes-painful transition with pathos and charm.