Though produced by an American animation studio, "The Boxtrolls" is about as British as movies get. Its humor is morbid, its characters grotesque, its story driven by themes of class. Would you believe it's a children's film?
"The Boxtrolls," loosely based on Alan Snow's 2005 novel, "Here Be Monsters!," tells the story of a human boy raised by underground-dwelling boxtrolls -- so called because they wear cardboard boxes the way snails wear shells. They're even named after their labels, which is why the boy is called Eggs (the voice of Isaac Hempstead Wright) and his adoptive father is Fish (Dee Bradley Baker, a voice-work veteran who also plays Shoe and Wheels).
The boxtrolls are greenish-skinned, ugly-cute creatures whose nonsensical babble seems aimed at the international box office. Everything else about this movie, however, feels unmistakably British. Its setting is provincial Cheesebridge ("A Gouda Place to Live"), ruled by the addle-pated Lord Portly-Rind (Jared Harris). His little daughter, Winnie (a very good Elle Fanning), has the ruddy cheeks and pear-shaped figure of a pub matron. The movie's villain is Archibald Snatcher, an exterminator trying to stamp out the boxtrolls forever.
Snatcher is a vivid and rather tragic figure for a children's film, a low-class striver desperate to earn one of the town's "white hats" -- a peerage, basically. Speaking in a Cockney rumble provided by Ben Kingsley but preening like Tim Curry in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," Snatcher is a cartoon cousin of Dickens' Uriah Heep, fawning when it serves him, vicious when it doesn't. At times, he becomes so hideously distorted (he's allergic to cheese) that he resembles one of Ralph Steadman's violent, violated caricatures.
The movie's stop-motion animation (by the Laika company, of "Coraline" and "ParaNorman") is top-notch, but the cheese motif begs comparison to Britain's animated "Wallace and Gromit" series and there's a gastronomic gag that comes directly from Monty Python (whose Eric Idle contributes a song to the closing credits). "The Boxtrolls" has moments of humor and imagination, but American children may not be its ideal audience.
PLOT The adventures of a human boy raised by underground trolls
RATING PG (scary imagery)
CAST Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning, Isaac Hempstead Wright
BOTTOM LINE Imaginative but very weird, more Monty Python than Walt Disney. Not for all tastes.