Three stars (out of four)
PG (action, peril, mild rude humor)
Hollywood’s animation heavyweights tend to be studios like Disney-Pixar and DreamWorks, which specialize in cranking out cleverly scripted, pleasingly bubbly, brightly colored fables enjoyed by kids and parents alike.
But there’s something to be said for stop-motion animation, the scruffier, more tactile, more exquisite alternative to the computer-generated onslaught of perfect, glossy images served up in films like “Frozen” and “Despicable Me.”
The beauty of stop-motion is found in the medium’s imperfections and quirks. The original 1933 King Kong was all the more lovable because human finger smudges could be seen in his faux fur. Technology has evolved — CG and 3-D printing are part of the art now — but the tradition remains the same.
There’s something makeshift and magical about stop-motion. The mark of the creators who spend hour upon hour painstakingly moving puppets a fraction of an inch remains, breathing humanity into those tiny, vividly lifelike creations.
There’s a pioneering rebel spirit to stop-motion animation that lends itself to the eccentric and the macabre. Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and Aardman Animation’s “Wallace and Gromit” are two excellent examples of this phenomenon.
But no one has pushed the limits of the genre quite like Laika, the studio behind the gorgeously unsettling “Coraline,” with its creepy, button-eyed Other Mother, and the delightful “ParaNorman,” which featured Puritan zombies. (How awesome is that?)
Laika’s latest foray into the weird and wondrously gothic is “The Boxtrolls,” which may not be as dark and hypnotic as “Coraline” or as nuttily hilarious as “ParaNorman,” but will inspire just as much affection from stop-motion fans.
The film is set in the dreary, cobble-stone-paved village of Cheesebridge, where the fromage-obsessed citizens live in fear of their subterranean neighbors, adorably stubby-fingered, snaggle-toothed little scavengers who only emerge at night.
The Boxtrolls are so named because, a la the hermit crab, they don cardboard coverings for protection and modesty’s sake. They’re sweet-natured tinkerers who put the discarded gizmos and gadgets of Cheesebridge to inventive use in their underground lair.
Thanks to the fear-mongering of oily exterminator Archibald Snatcher (richly voiced by Ben Kingsley) and cheese-worshiping aristocrat Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), the townspeople are convinced the trolls kidnap and eat small children. The only one who knows better is Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a young boy raised as a Boxtroll by tender-hearted surrogate father Fish (Dee Bradley Baker).
When the trolls’ numbers begin to shrink, thanks to Snatcher’s aggressive nocturnal schemes, Eggs is forced out of hiding onto the day-lit streets of Cheesebridge, where he uncovers an insidious plot.
Eggs is a likable enough character, as is his spunky ally, Lord Portley-Rind’s feisty, red-headed daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning), but if there’s one thing a movie called “The Boxtrolls” could use more of, it’s actual Boxtrolls.
The jolly little mechanics are featured in a brief introduction and reappear in the film’s raucous finale, but they’re woefully absent for much of the story, which centers around Cheesebridge’s dairy-fueled class conflict and Eggs’ reentry into the village’s snobbish human society.
A scene in which Eggs and Winnie crash a fancy ball, attended by the fabulous and quite possibly cross-dressing Madame Frou Frou, is a lot of fun, but even it could use more troll.
Parents should know “The Boxtrolls” isn’t as potentially scary or disturbing as “Coraline” or even “ParaNorman,” which unexpectedly veered into the realm of child murder. Dark themes are touched upon briefly but with a generous dose of humor.
Visually, the film is a feast for the eyes, embedded with brilliant detail and character design that evokes a garish but mesmerizing oil painting.
A lively voice cast brings a welcome dash of silliness to the proceedings, especially comedians Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Tracy Morgan as a trio of philosophical but confused henchmen.
And the film’s obsession with everything from Gouda to Gruyere plays like an elaborate homage to a certain British stop-motion classic. Cheese, Gromit!