The third slice of spooky whimsy from Laika, the Oregon-based stop-motion animation studio that gave us Coraline and ParaNorman, is simultaneously more of a kiddie movie than its predecessors and more of an atrocity exhibition.
Set in a Victorian English town called Cheesebridge, The Boxtrolls concerns the eponymous characters, who grunt like a cross between Mr. Bean and Gollum, and the human boy they've raised since infancy. The Boxtrolls have no qualms with the human world, as they only emerge from their underground hideaway at night, to dumpster-dive for spare parts – they are quite mechanically-inclined, you see. Then one day, the village's mayor(?) hires a grotesque exterminator to rid the streets of this "threat". What will happen to these poor creatures?
As usual, Laika's animation is incredible, and The Boxtrolls is a marvel of world-building, although at least some credit is due to British author Alan Snow, on whose children's book Here Be Monsters! the film is very loosely based. This is one of the rare times that I regretted not seeing a 3-D movie in 3-D. The sets are richly detailed and the shots are laid out to emphasize depth.
It's hard to truly like The Boxtrolls, though. The fact is, the character designs are gruesome – even the human boy, Eggs, is not much to look at. (His female friend, Winnie, has more charm, being nearly the only female in the movie; she looks like she was modeled on Kate Winslet, though she is voiced by Elle Fanning.) But the adult humans, in particular the exterminator (voiced by Ben Kingsley with an uncharacteristically deep baritone), are off-putting, as is the relentlessly muddy color scheme. All of this is intentional, but the sheer ugliness wore on me after a while. Tim Burton, when he made the similarly-themed Corpse Bride, at least had the good sense to boost the color palette of his netherworld, offsetting the drabness of the film's aboveground scenes.
Nevertheless, the story is solid, although it's at times overly silly and a few details could have been better worked out. And like I said, the animation is terrific. I hope the film does well enough to keep Laika in business, because I don't want stop-motion to become a lost art. Let's just hope their next movie is more pleasant to look at.