'The Boxtrolls'

Boxtrolls, like and endangered shark or bat species, have an unfairly poor reputation. They are feared and hated by the citizens of Cheesebridge, the town underneath which they reside, because blame for the mysterious disappearance (and presumed death) of the Trubshaw baby and his father has been wrongly pinned on them. Some 10 years after the Trubshaw baby's disappearance, they have been relentlessly hunted in to near-extinction by the exterminator Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley) and his three henchmen/stooges/deputies Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade) and Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan).

Boxtrolls are not vicious baby killers, nor are they even petty thieves -- another charge leveled against them by the townspeople. They are mild-mannered, easily frightened builders that wander out at night to take the trash of Cheesebridge and turn it in to treasure in their underground lair. They are so frightened of must humans, and especially Archibald Snatcher, that, like a turtle receding in to its shell, they shrink in to the cardboard boxes that double as their clothes at the sight of one.

The only person they aren't afraid of is Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), an orphaned boy that they have raised as one of their own even as their population has dwindled at the hands of Snatcher. And it is the discovery of Eggs' existence and his cohabitation with the Boxtrolls by the citizens of Cheesebridge that upsets the established order in the town.

This crash course in the goings-on of Cheesebridge and the introduction of the central tension in the film -- the myth vs. the reality of the Boxtrolls -- is an absolute delight. Laika Studios, the stop-motion animation production company also behind ParaNorman and Coraline, makes the most visually interesting animated films around, and their more celebrated competition isn't particularly close.

The best Pixar Studios releases these days are the shorts shown before their oft-uninspired feature-length films, and The Boxtrolls feels an awful lot like a Pixar short fully realized. The titular creatures speak a language that is reminiscent of WALL-E's, making the dialogue especially sparse at the film's outset.

That puts a heavy burden on the visuals, and they deliver. They must (and do) establish the Boxtrolls' world -- the vacuum-like pipe that sucks them up the surface, the conveyor belt that delivers them back home, the in-and-out-of-their-cardboard-shell mechanics as they try to avoid detection by the exterminators. And, with nary a word, they must (and do) make the Boxtrolls lovable -- their care of Eggs has to shine through enough that the terror of Snatcher's pursuit is upsetting. This plays to the strengths of the Laika animators. Every night, Eggs is surrounded by the Boxtrolls as he goes to sleep, leaping up to turn off the light. Every day, he and Fish -- the Boxtroll primarily responsible for his care -- sing/meep along to a discarded, imperfectly shaped record. The prospect that Eggs and Fish could be separated on almost any night by Snatcher and his gang is alarming, driven home by the decreasing number of boxes he is surrounded by as the years pass.

The surface of Cheesebridge is where the real grotesquerie lives. A pot belly, crooked nose and droopy balding hairline make Snatcher especially hideous and sinister. It only gets worse when he consumes cheese -- the obsession of the citizens of the town -- and a food to which he happens to be extremely allergic. Watching Snatcher's face puff up as he consumes a miniscule amount of cheese is, to put it bluntly, gross and offputting -- the way I wish more kids' movies were.

There's an easy allegory about genocide to be had in Snatcher's wicked, ugly persecution of the Boxtrolls, and the Boxtrolls' comparative peacefulness. Snatcher uses ginned up fear of the creatures to justify his station as the leader of the Red Hats -- the only group in town permitted to stay out after curfew to hunt the Boxtrolls.

But what I found more interesting was how damningly the rest of the townspeople are portrayed for enabling them, and particularly the greedy, aloof leadership of Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) and the rest of the White Hats (de facto town leaders) who string along Snatcher with the promise of elevated social status should he complete his mission of eliminating the Boxtrolls. Their detachment from reality, which has them choosing giant wheels of Brie over a children's hospital, both permits Snatcher's free reign and feeds his lust for improved social status.

It is only Portley-Rind's daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning) and the determination and ingenuity of Eggs and the rest of the Boxtrolls that saves Cheesebridge from Snatcher and, really, from itself.

There's nothing in the world of animation right now that looks quite as good as a Laika Studios picture. Three feature films in, that is an established trend. Just as heartening is its willingness to pair those distinct, gorgeous visuals with a grown-up story that children can still love. The Boxtrolls is gross and weird and funny, but it is more than a string of fart jokes delivered by a-bit-too-noticeable voices. That is what truly sets them apart.