Gurgling, burping and belching its way to your heart -- in theory, anyhow -- "The Boxtrolls" is the latest film from the merry magicians at Laika studios, those stop-motion geniuses who previously brought you "Coraline" and "Paranorman." And that may be no small part of the problem; even with its cockeyed Britishness, its gentle messages and technically brilliant use of stop-motion, "The Boxtrolls" feels entirely too familiar when considered as part and parcel of the Laika output, yet another film where a young person, caught between the real world and a fantastical one, unites the two to save the day ...
With a script by Irina Brignull and Adam Pava as adapted from Alan Snow's novel "Here Be Monsters," "The Boxtrolls" takes place in (and under) the city of Cheesebridge, a British-ish small town that seems to be half out of kid's storybooks and half from Mervyn Peake's terrifying Gormenghast novels, a city built on a single hill. The town lives in fear of the title creatures, humanoid scavengers, scroungers and builders who come out at night to find metal and machines for their own use; wearing discarded cardboard boxes as carapaces like a turtle's shell, they can pull in all their limbs to hide as just another bit of trash in an urban setting.
The boxtrolls themselves are actually loving, kind and bumptious creatures, even adopting a human boy as their own after his abandonment, giving him the name "Eggs" in honor of the label on the box he wears like his cohorts. When local social climber and steampunk mad genius Mr. Archibald Catcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley with a mucus-laden rattle in his speech) promises city ruler Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris of "Mad Men") he can rid the town of the boxtrolls, a frightened citizenry are more than willing to let him firm up his grip on power in the name of safety; Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright), with the help of the cultured, proper Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning), has to figure out how to save his friends and his town.
Will your kids dig it? Perhaps, and probably more so for its sight gags and busy comedy moments, and possibly less for the story as a whole. There's some excellent voice casting here -- including Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Tracy Morgan as Catcher's self-aware hench-people -- but at the same time, all the chases and fights and climaxes feel a little familiar. The dialogue, with straining groaners like "Cheeses, hats and boxes don't make you you; you make you you ..." is so heavy-handed you can feel it slump off the screen in 3-D along with the images.
There's no denying the step-by-step, frame-by-frame 3-D-printed magic of the filmmaking is beautiful, but this time, the process seems to have put the 'bore' in 'laborious.' A lot of "The Boxtrolls" is hampered by an ugly look and feel -- crooked teeth, leech attacks, a man is swollen by his cheese allergies into a pulpy cartoon, a villainous character literally farts themselves to death. A little of this goes a long way, and while it's nice to have something out there as an alternative to the too-smooth look of most computer-animated films, I'm not sure that the level of grody grit and grime here is the best alternative possibility. Directors Graham Annabel and Anthony Stacchi are both making their feature-length directing debut, so the suggestion that they leaned on the Laika house style until it collapsed over on them might be a fair one; a little more story-shaping and editing would not have gone amiss.
The most depressing thing about "The Boxtrolls" is how its misshapen forest really does contain a few excellent trees; the technique is inarguable, even if the ways that technique is expressed are very much up for discussion. The boxtrolls themselves may not speak much, but they're voiced by animation legends like Dee Bradley Baker, Steve Blum and Fred Tatasciore. And there's something about Laika's methods -- with real objects reflecting real light in the grip of gravity itself -- that conveys emotion and feeling in a way that a million meticulous computerized pixels can't. "The Boxtrolls" is a swing-and-miss for Laika; when you move forward with revolutionary techniques while standing still in terms of your themes, stories and settings, no amount of technical trickery or animation genius can bring the boring to vivid life.