Laika, the film studio behind modern stop-motion animated classics "Coraline" and "ParaNorman," brings yet another endlessly imaginative tale to the big screen. Based loosely on the book "Here Be Monsters" by Alan Snow, "The Boxtrolls" is a whimsically demented fable centering on the titular creatures: adorably ugly, toothy, grey-skinned beasts who dwell beneath the Dickensian city of Cheesebridge. Though citizens of the city have been raised to fear the boxtrolls as man-eating monsters who will steal their babies, we learn rather quickly that they're actually harmless scavengers, rooting through the city's trash, stealing whatever scraps and bits of metal they feel might be useful. The creatures wear cardboard cartons for clothing, which they retreat into to sleep or when frightened -- their names are even derived from whatever their box once held (Fish, Shoe, Fragile, etc).
Archibald Snatcher (a wonderfully villainous Ben Kingsley), the city exterminator, is the chief reason behind the citizens' misguided beliefs about the boxtrolls. He uses the disappearance of an infant as proof of their monstrous nature, claiming that the trolls have kidnapped and eaten the baby (though we know that the child has actually been raised by the creatures as one of their own). Snatcher vows to rid Cheesebridge of boxtrolls completely in exchange for being allowed to join the ranks of the elite "white hats," an oligarchy of rich, self-absorbed men who sit around eating cheese and making decisions about what's best for the city -- though this mostly seems to involve using the city's money to buy more cheese for themselves (at one point even at the expense of building a children's hospital). The group is led by the pompous Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), who promises to reward Snatcher with the white hat he so desperately desires once the final boxtroll has been destroyed. Snatcher is aided his quest by his henchmen Mr. Trout, Mr. Pickles, and Mr. Gristle (voiced by Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan, respectively). While Mr. Gristle is an unabashedly deranged psychopath, Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles earn some of the film's biggest laughs through their slow realization that they may not the heroes they so believe themselves to be, but rather the bad guys of the story.
Meanwhile, that missing baby has grown into a 10-year-old boy named Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright, "Game of Thrones"). Having lived nearly all his life being raised by the subterranean creatures, he believes himself to be one of them, so when his fellow boxtrolls begin to be rounded up, he takes it upon himself to fight back and defend his adopted family. Along the way, Eggs makes the acquaintance of Lord Portley-Rind's neglected daughter, Winnie (Elle Fanning, adopting an impressive British accent), a rather snooty child with a redeeming taste for the macabre. She befriends Eggs and is eventually recruited to join his cause.
Though "The Boxtrolls" doesn't have a groundbreaking story (it basically boils down to misunderstood monsters and a hero longing to find his place in the world), directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi -- working from a witty screenplay credited to Irena Brignull and Adam Pava -- bring an inventive energy to the material. As with "Coraline" and "ParaNorman" before it, "The Boxtrolls" has a tone that's darker and a bit more dangerous than the average children's movie (though it remains significantly less scary than those earlier films), and it maintains those stories vehement distrust of authority figures. Commitment to not dumbing things down for a younger audience is always appreciated. The general obsession with cheese (and cheese puns) calls to mind Aardman's Wallace and Gromit characters, and there's a fair amount of Roald Dahl thrown in as well. As touchstones for children's stories go, you can't do much better than that.
But the number one reason to see the film is to enjoy the sheer artistry on display. Like everything Laika has produced, the detailed, handcrafted design of the film is pleasingly tactile, with everything feeling as though it's been cobbled together from spare parts like one of the boxtrolls creations. The stop-motion animation is the most seamless I think I've ever seen -- the amount of effort that went into the creation of the film is staggering. The entire film is just jaw-droppingly gorgeous to see.
A note: While I attended a 3D showing of the "The Boxtrolls," I recommend avoiding seeing the film in that format. The added immersive quality of the 3D isn't enough to counteract the negative impact of the 3D glasses; the film's color palette is so subtle that the dimming effect of the glasses completely washes out the detail, making the film's intricate design that much more difficult to appreciate. Luckily, the story, characters, and the world they inhabit were more than vibrant enough to make up for it.