Review:  Any way you slice it, ‘Boxtrolls’ is an unwieldy visual feast

Eggs, center, voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright, is surrounded by his Boxtroll friends in "The Boxtrolls."
(Laika / Focus Features )
Los Angeles Times Film Critic

Many intriguing unlovelies are found in “The Boxtrolls,” a new 3-D animated fable that lifts liberally from the sketches and dark sensibility of Alan Snow’s creepy-good children’s novel “Here Be Monsters.”

A rich voice cast adds oomph, led by a vamping Ben Kingsley as villainous Archibald Snatcher and seductive chanteuse Madame Frou Frou — amazing what a plunging neckline and lipstick can disguise.

He is joined by a feisty Elle Fanning, a priggish Jared Harris, a conflicted Isaac Hempstead Wright and off-the-wall Simon Pegg, along with a mischievous crew of bad bunglers in Tracy Morgan, Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost.

Exceptional stop-motion animation sends the boxtrolls themselves scurrying through artfully designed piles of debris that litter the Victorian-era village of Cheesebridge. Nearly everyone and everything is in jeopardy — the trolls, the citizens, their precious stinky cheese.


Such a top-heavy creative slate should deliver a great deal of delight. So why does “The Boxtrolls” slip and slide so perilously?

Directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable, the stumbling is primarily the result of an unwieldy story that reels wildly around a series of complicated issues. The animation and the plotting vie for attention, at times more at odds than Cheesebridge and the trolls. It muddies the most important question hanging over the town like a ripe Limburger: Who are the real monsters?

Even so, the latest film from Laika, the Oregon-animated force behind Oscar animation nominees “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” has many charms. That signature off-center orientation and the devotion to outsiders is always welcome in the animation house. And in the current conversation over what makes a family these days, boxtrolls make a good case for embracing different.

The movie is shaped by the complex societies that live above and below ground in Cheesebridge — people above, monsters beneath, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Tensions arise when the denizens of the two worlds collide.

Irena Brignull and Adam Pava’s script is ambitious in its sheer conflict count. Wedged between the exclusive cheese-tasting parties there is a tale of social and economic class divides. Wrapped up in a bow and a party dress is Winnie (Fanning), an ignored and angry child of privilege.

In the elaborate civilization down under, there is Eggs (Wright), the foundling the boxtrolls have raised since he was a babe. He’s quite happy in his boxtroll life until Winnie points out he is not a boxtroll at all but a boy. Cue identity crisis.

Herbert Trubshaw (Pegg) is a mysterious inventor whose revolutionary ideas are considered a threat. He becomes a significant factor in part because he’s long been a boxtroll friend. The fear of the monsters is fueled by ignorance.

Winnie’s father, Lord Portley-Rind (Harris, best known here as “Mad Men’s” British interloper Lane Pryce) represents the upper tier of Cheesebridge’s upper crust. Busy hosting elegant cheese soirees for his White Hatted friends, he barely has time for his precocious daughter.

As vexed as Winnie is, nothing compares to the discontent of Archibald Snatcher, a man desperate to wear a white hat, to smell the cheese.

The bulk of the action is tied to his increasingly elaborate schemes to do exactly that — all involve eliminating Cheesebridge’s boxtrolls. His trio of Red Hats — Mr. Pickles (Ayoade), Mr. Gristle (Morgan) and Mr. Trout (Frost) — are ostensibly there to assist.

The boxtrolls are by far the movie’s most interesting species. Shy creatures of various shapes and sizes, they are defined in many ways by the discarded cardboard boxes they use for clothing and hiding. Their names are drawn from the labels stamped on their box, which is how Eggs got his.

The boxtrolls world is especially inventive with all its recycled sprockets and gears; metal is the only thing they like more than cardboard. In looks, the creatures are cut from a mold that is more clever than cute. Typical is Fish (voiced by Dee Bradley Baker, who also handles Wheels and Bucket). Eggs’ surrogate father is an easy-to-love boxtroll with googly eyes, a goofy smile, a slight drool and a gentle heart.

But rather than develop its characters, the film expends its energy ginning up spectacular venues to showcase the push-and-pull of the various factions. When Snatcher turns up on stage disguised as Madame Frou Frou, the better to manipulate the White Hat society, my dear, it delivers some Broadway-esque fun — Kingsley’s a hoot as a boa-clad crooner — but also feels, well, staged.

It’s a frustration.

You can see the years of effort, the polish and precision that went into creating “The Boxtrolls.” The details are impressive: 190 puppets built, 79 sets constructed, 20,000 handmade props, 200 costumes, 26 locations, 56 cameras, 892 lights, 53,000 face parts.... But somehow it still doesn’t add up to enough.

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‘The Boxtrolls’

MPAA rating: PG for action, some peril and mild rude humor

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Playing: In general release