AMID A SEA OF FILMS aimed at the kiddie market, the Hillsboro-based Laika has been able to distinguish itself not only with a mastery of the visually thrilling and time-consuming process of stop-motion animation, but also by embracing the dark side. Like some of Disney's earliest features or the animation genius of Studio Ghibli, Laika doesn't shy away from the scarier side of stories meant for children, as evidenced by their 2009 adaptation of Neil Gaiman's scintillating fantasy novella Coraline and their 2012 zombies-in-a-small-town comedy ParaNorman. Even at their most slapstick-y, both movies were bathed in shadows and creepy-crawlies.
For their third feature, The Boxtrolls (adapted very loosely from Alan Snow's book Here Be Monsters!), Laika takes a small step toward the lighter side of children's fare: While there are still slightly grotesque, strangely alluring creatures at the heart of the story, this time they're the heroes, unlike the undead of ParaNorman or the Other Parents of Coraline.
The titular boxtrolls are ugly little turds with hearts of gold. Most nights, these nocturnal creatures wander the alleyways of the town of Cheesebridge, digging for scrap metal and other gewgaws that they take home and incorporate into elaborate Rube Goldberg devices. One night, the boxtrolls—named such because they use old boxes as both clothing and hiding places—carry back a small child with them. It's a move that leads the townspeople to fear these kindly creatures and to encourage a nasty bunch of exterminators, led by the bulbous Archibald Snatcher (voiced by an unrecognizable Ben Kingsley), to dispense of the blue-green-skinned goblins.
Of course, the boxtrolls mean the kid no harm and instead raise him as their own, naming him Eggs after the label on the box he wears (the boxtrolls themselves all have similar names and similar boxes, like Shoe or Fish). It's a fairly idyllic life for Eggs—until the population of the little trash collectors starts dwindling and the lad runs into Winnie (Elle Fanning), who works to convince him that he's a "proper boy."
And that's when things get complicated for The Boxtrolls, in the best and worst ways: While the elaborate set pieces get bigger and bigger as the film moves along (including a dazzling, dizzying dance sequence), the story gets muddled. Laika—for the first time in their short cinematic history—tries to squeeze in a Message, with screenwriters Irena Brignull and Adam Pava straining under the effort of reminding young viewers to be who they are, even as they tsk-tsk at neglectful parents like Winnie's cheese-obsessed father.
These are the kind of growing pains to be expected from an animation company trying to make its first real push against the big boys like Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks. And hey, maybe gluing a moral compass onto The Boxtrolls might be just the thing to convince a bigger, more mainstream audience to appreciate Laika's jaw-dropping stop motion and keen use of voice talent. (In The Boxtrolls' case, it's Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost, and Tracy Morgan who're particularly great as Snatcher's trio of henchmen.) If it affords Laika the opportunity to continue to astonish us with new films, putting up with The Boxtrolls' lecture will have been worth it.