There’s something about stop-motion 3D animation — the not-quite-real textures of skin and hair, the quite real cloth and metal, the subtle gloomy lighting effects — that says "spooky." All the best animated films with a hint of Halloween have been stop-motion animation or digital efforts that duplicate that hand-molded model look — "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Coraline."
"The Boxtrolls" is from Laika, the studio that made "ParaNorman" and "Coraline." This adaptation of an Alan Snow novel ("Here Be Monsters!") is inventive and fanciful and almost certainly the best animated film of the year. It’s spooky and funny and a little twisted, with a little social commentary in the "ParaNorman" style. Start to finish, it’s a delight.
The title characters are pointy-eared trolls who live in abandoned cardboard boxes and rummage through the garbage cans of Cheesebridge at night. They collect geegaws and such: door knockers, busted alarm clocks, abandoned toys. When the lights come on, they skulk inside the boxes that they wear. When the sun comes up they flee below ground where they speak Minions-style gibberish, compare notes on what they’ve collected, tinker and invent.
But they’re feared. They’ve stolen a human baby, so that must be in their diet.
"Hide your cheese," purrs the red-hatted exterminator the townsfolk have hired to wipe out the trolls. "Hide your tender and delicious babies!"
Archibald Snatcher, voiced with malevolent glee and Brit-villain intonations by Oscar winner Ben Kingsley, wants to swap his red hat for a white hat. The men who wear the white hats, led by Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), are an exclusive lot, rich members of a secret society who do exotic cheese tastings behind closed doors.
But Lord Portley-Rind’s daughter Winnifred (Elle Fanning, with a plummy English accent) spies the Boxtrolls at work, and sees a boy (Isaac Hempstead Wright) in their ranks. There’s more to them than Snatcher is letting on, and as she gets to know the boy, "Eggs," she and we learn something of their true nature and their history.
Animation vets Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi and their design team make the most of this 3D world. We see the light through the thin cloth brim of Snatcher’s red hat, the mangled angles of his crooked teeth, the smoke and cinders from his assorted steam-powered vehicles and the wriggling leeches one of his henchmen (voiced with great relish by Tracy Morgan, Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade) treat "The Boss" with when he’s had too much cheese.
There are grownup jokes — street names are all cheese ingredients, cheese jokes and cheese references — "What the Gouda?" And small children will delight in the gross gags — bug eating and the like.
The plot is as clockwork as the many gadgets the trolls swipe and Snatcher uses to hunt them, with hints of class warfare and fear-mongering slipped in.
The story’s English fairytale tone, English accents and setting (late Victorian) call to mind Aardman’s "Wallace and Gromit" films. Laika’s earlier efforts hinted that they’d learned from those masters of this animation style. "Boxtrolls" suggests that they’ve mastered it.
Review by Roger Moore, McClatchy Newspapers