There’s something refreshing about the stop-motion animation films that come out of the animation studio Laika (“Coraline” and “Paranorman”). These films aren’t as vibrant and colorful as most mainstream, animated features; the characters are often oddly proportioned and look malnourished, as if they’ve gotten the plague. And instead of being completely goofy and upbeat, they also try to tackle darker, more adult themes — without being too dark — to keep the parents in the audience interested. But in a sea of similar-looking, mainstream animated movies, Laika’s films stand out.
Its latest, “The Boxtrolls,” is no different. Visually, it’s very dreary, taking place primarily during foggy, rainy nights. The town where all of the action takes place comes straight from a German expressionist movie: The buildings are jagged, crooked and smashed together. And none of the characters look “cute” in a conventional sense. Yet, the movie still comes fully to life, popping off the screen despite its dim color palette.
Co-directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi move the action along at a snappy pace, with nearly every frame bustling and humming with activity.
Most of the activity and high energy level comes from the Boxtrolls themselves. We’re first introduced to them — their small stature, nearly hairless bodies, pale-blue skin and Gargoyle-like facial features — as they scurry about in an alley late at night, rummaging through trash cans and junk heaps for food and supplies. Grunting and speaking gibberish, they resemble grotesque versions of the Minions from “Despicable Me.” Of course, they’re actually nurturing and shy —they wear cardboard boxes and hide in them like hermit crabs. They’ve even adopted a human baby named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) into their underground society.
“The Boxtrolls” tells a classic kids’ story of misunderstanding and fearing what one doesn’t know, leading to the upbeat conclusion that everyone can change. Due to an incident that happened years ago, the humans now view Boxtrolls as vicious, baby-eating menaces. The cheese-loving, upper class, led by Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), decide to exterminate the entire species, so it’s up to Eggs and Winnie (Elle Fanning), Portley-Rinds’ daughter, to set things right.
All of this is handled in a mostly entertaining, pleasurable manner. The kid heroes are developed just enough to be engaging and likable animated-movie protagonists.
However, it’s the character of Archibald Snatcher (a virtually unrecognizable voice from Ben Kingsley) that makes “The Boxtrolls” all the more interesting. Right from the start, we know Snatcher is the movie’s antagonist not just because he’s in charge of the Boxtroll extermination, but also because he looks like a cross between a zombie and a goblin, with a little bit of The Penguin thrown in.
Though Snatcher isn’t merely a one-dimensional cartoon villain hell-bent on killing the Boxtrolls. He accepts the extermination job because he wants so badly to be accepted by Portley-Rind and his upper-class friends. In his spare time, Snatcher holds mock cheese-tasting-club meetings with his cronies, even though he’s allergic to the food and dresses up as a woman to frequent upper-class parties and receive even more attention from the wealthy. But Portley-Rind and his friends find Snatcher repulsive and have no desire to let him into their lifestyle.
“The Boxtrolls” may be one of the few recent animated movies to openly critique the upper class. Portley-Rind is so self-centered that he’d rather spend all his time with his cheese-club friends than with his daughter and would rather spend money on a gigantic cheese wheel — called the “Brie-hemoth” — than build an orphanage.
Of course, all of this will go right over young children’s heads. While the kids in the crowd enjoy the simple, kinetic antics of Eggs, Winnie and the Boxtrolls, parents can be entertained by Snatcher’s strenuous — and sad — attempts to be accepted by the upper class.
“The Boxtrolls” is easily Laika’s best movie. It’s consistently entertaining and clever. It never meanders, the animation is top-notch and adults can easily enjoy it.