By Mary Houlihan/For Sun-Times Media
“The Boxtrolls” is the latest film from the absurdly talented animators at Laika, the studio responsible for “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.” As in these past productions, “The Boxtrolls” has a rich, edgy texture that makes it stand out from other animated films.
As usual, the stop-motion animation is remarkable. Guided by co-directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable, the team of animators has built a weird, colorful environment that gets more and more amazing as the story unfolds in many imaginative ways. It’s a world that runs in a parallel universe akin to that of Charles Dickens, with creatively named characters involved in seemingly outlandish adventures in a Victorian-era city where a moral or two plays out in the end.
“The Boxtrolls,” based on Alan Snow’s book “Here Be Monsters,” is about Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), who as a baby is kidnapped, raised by Boxtrolls and believed to be one himself. We don’t get any background as to where the nonverbal (they speak a form of frustrating gibberish) Boxtrolls come from. They just simply exist in a cleverly engineered cavern underneath the 19th century, steampunk-inspired city of Cheesebridge, where your status in life is based on how much cheese you own.
At night, the Boxtrolls pop out of manhole covers to scavenge for broken things and bits and bobs to take back to their home. They seem to be inventors of some sort, but their mission in life is also never fully explained. (They are named for whatever their cardboard-box armor is labeled — Eggs, Fish, Shoe, Oil Can, Fragile, etc.)
Since the supposed abduction, as citizens become more and more paranoid, pest exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), assisted by his three henchmen, Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade) and Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan), has insinuated himself as the city’s savior, ranting about the evils of Boxtrolls and offering to rid the city of them.
Essentially a social climber, Snatcher’s end goal is to join fromage-fixated Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) and other dignitaries in the tasting room at their banquets of cheese. But things get more complicated when Portley-Rind’s young daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning) meets Eggs and realizes the Boxtrolls are harmless. A battle of wits ensues as Snatcher, and his drag alter ego Madame Frou Frou, attempt to win over hearts and minds while Eggs and the Boxtrolls run for their lives.
Unlike Laika’s earlier films, “The Boxtrolls” isn’t necessarily scary; it’s more focused on the gross (yucky leeches and slimy bugs). The Boxtrolls are lovable but also pretty dull creatures. After a slow start, the story picks up, and young viewers will get caught up in this subversive, vigorously told tale of underdogs and children defeating evil adults while also teaching them a lesson that families come in all shapes and sizes. (I saw the film in 3-D, which didn’t add anything to the experience.)
And make sure to stick around even when you think the credits are over for a charming, revealing moment as two of the existential-spouting henchmen, Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles, have a discussion about their place in the world while, around them, that amazing world is created.
Focus Features presents a film directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi. Written by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, based on the book “Here Be Monsters” by Alan Snow. Running time: 97 minutes. Rated PG (for action, some peril and mild rude humor). Opens Friday at local theaters.