A spooky surrealism has been the specialty of the Oregon-based animation studio Laika, the Pacific Northwest purveyors of 3-D stop-motion.
The self-stylized descendants of the Brothers Grimm and Neil Gaiman (whose Coraline they adapted for their first of three features), Laika seems to yearn for a little more darkness, a touch of Gothic in our children’s films – a laudable and very welcome impulse that makes one inclined to celebrate their fanciful grotesqueries on intentions alone.
Laika’s talented animators, though, often seem to conjure their puppetry whimsy quicker than their screenwriters can spin a story. That was the case with their last one, the brilliant-looking but meandering ParaNorman, about a boy who alone sees and uncomfortably lives with the lingering spirits of dead people, and it’s true with their latest, The Boxtrolls.
The film is set in the British village of Cheesebridge where cheese is the most prized currency and the town’s aristocracy – a trio of clueless men dubbed “White Hats” for their tall head-ware – spend their time slathering over gouda. (In both location and cheese worship, Laika is intruding somewhat on the territory of its sunnier stop-motion rivals, Aardman Animation of Wallace and Gromit.)
The supposed scourge of Cheesebridge are the Boxtrolls, little nocturnal creatures who wear discarded boxes like a turtle shell and scavenge for mechanical parts on nighttime streets.
Archibald Snatcher (a deliciously snarling Ben Kingsley), having promised to rid the town of the Boxtrolls, hunts them with his existentially confused henchmen (Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost), who – in the movie’s cleverest bit – are in a quandary over whether they’ve unwittingly become bad guys. “I’m not a stooge, am I?” wonders one.
The Boxtrolls – naturally, not the monsters they’ve been made out to be – live peacefully underground, charmingly stacking themselves for bed as if preparing for UPS pickup. They mutter a little like the minions of Despicable Me, fleeing like springing accordions or camouflaging themselves beside a fruit cart.
Among them is a child (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright) they’ve raised from infancy named “Eggs” (they all take their names from their boxes, like “Fish” and “Shoe”). He begins to confidently explore Cheesebridge above ground, defending his Boxtroll brethren, and befriending the assertive, overlooked daughter of one of the White Hats, Winnie (Elle Fanning).
The grubby Victorian designs overseen by directors Graham Annable (the story artist of ParaNorman) and Anthony Stacchi (co-director of the 2006 animated film Open Season) are ultimately a little suffocating. Boxtrolls, loosely based on Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters, belongs to a subgenre called Steampunk, a kind of Victorian fantasy full of neo-futuristic machines. (It’s a little like a Tom Waits video.)
The sensibility here is probably more than some small children will enjoy. Leaches, for example, don’t come standard in kids’ movies.
But The Boxtrolls, despite a rather uncertainly structured story by screenwriters Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, has its pleasantly demented charms.
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan.
Directors: Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi.
Screenwriter: Irena Brignull, Adam Pava.
A Focus Features release. Running time: 96 minutes. Action, some peril and mild rude humor. Playing at area theaters.