The artisanal, handcrafted animated film is alive and well at LAIKA, the Oregon-based animation studio responsible for “Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” and now “The Boxtrolls.” Loosely based on Alan Snow’s “Here Be Monsters” books, this visually busy fantasy adventure about class and interspecies misunderstanding is a triumph of design and animation. It’s much less successful as compelling storytelling.
Ruling the topsy-turvy storybook town of Cheesebridge are the elite White Hats, headed by the stinky cheese-addicted Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris). In tunnels deep beneath the city live the boxtrolls: mischievous, Minion-like creatures who dumpster-dive the townsfolk’s trash at night and retreat, at first sight of a human, into the boxes they wear around them as clothing. Though harmless, boxtrolls are still vilified, especially by the relentless Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley). He embarks on a genocidal campaign to wipe them out, aided by henchmen Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan), Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade), and Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), whose existential banter about good and evil is some of the movie’s most inventive writing.
A boy called Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) secretly lives among the boxtrolls. As the boxtrolls disappear one by one into Snatcher’s nets, Eggs ventures to the surface to save his tribe. He befriends Winnie (Elle Fanning), the precocious royal daughter. Before the pair can begin the bridge-building work between their worlds, Winnie must be parted from her stereotypes. “Why aren’t they ripping out our eyeballs and eating our faces?” the morbid girl wonders when visiting the boxtroll realm. “And where are the rivers of blood and mountains of bones?”
Eggs must find his way in civilized life, and wonder if he’s “a proper boy” or beast. Pinocchio, meet Tarzan. This would have been a more interesting notion to explore than the idea that trolls aren’t our enemies just because they look different, or that there are many varieties of familial love. To be sure, “The Boxtrolls” delivers plenty of action for the kids, but nothing emotionally ever feels at risk for Eggs or Winnie. Compounding the problem are the boxtrolls themselves. We never know them as characters, particularly father figure Fish, because screenwriters Irena Brignull and Adam Pava have them speak an un-translated, Jawa-Gollum gibberish, not English.
That said, the visual design is captivating. By overlaying a few digital tricks onto old-fashioned, tangible, stop-motion puppetry, co-directors Anthony Stacchi (“Open Season”) and newbie Graham Annable give “The Boxtrolls” a weight and physicality missing from typical animated fare. From Cheesebridge’s crooked doorways to the puppet faces resembling clownish German Expressionist portraits, meticulous detail fills every frame.
Oddly, the Dickensian grotesquerie Snatcher, increasingly blinded by his desire to be accepted by the cheese-gorging upper class, becomes the most engrossing character, largely helped by Kingsley’s over-the-top comic performance. Snatcher gets his disgusting, Monty Pythonesque just deserts — but do note that his scenes might terrify the Brie out of the young’uns.
Like one of its wondrously designed steampunky contraptions, “The Boxtrolls” is a marvelous thing to behold, and watch spin, even if it doesn’t go anywhere terribly interesting.