'The Boxtrolls'

Grotesque and whimsical co-exist in an amazing feat
of stop-motion animation, The Boxtrolls
TROLL DOLLS: The underground-dwelling Boxtrolls make a handy Other for the denizens of Cheesebridge to hate, but in reality, they're gentle creatures.

There's a myth that keeps the city of Cheesebridge obedient. The Boxtrolls takes place in Cheesebridge. It's a strange crooked city on a hill, and it looks like someone pulled Mont Saint-Michel straight up out of Prague. It's a gaslit pile with looming streets, crooked drainpipes and deep gutters. Here, once upon a time, "the Trubshaw Baby" was kidnapped and taken by the trolls who live under the streets.

Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris), a proud non-entity with a chest full of medals, has accepted the offer of a freelance exterminator to rid the city of these unseen monsters. The exterminator is Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley does the voice with great flair and gusto). Snatcher is a hulking, unctuous creature with the most horrible teeth this side of Essex. And as he hunts the trolls with steam-powered machinery, he and his gang terrify the town with red alerts: "Hide your tender and delicious babies!"

The trolls are actually peaceful little tinkers—they're hermit-crab like in the way they've adopted discarded cardboard boxes as both clothing and home. Instead of eating the Trubshaw Baby, they've raised him as one of their own. The creatures talk in a snarling gabble—they hiss if they're cornered—but they have English names, based on the pictures of the boxes they wear. "Fish" is the foster father of "Eggs" (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), the human baby who is now a grown boy.

Meanwhile, the useless Lord's daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning) is becoming fascinated with the lore of the trolls. Comes the day of Cheesebridge's fair—a celebration, with medieval mystery-play re-enactment of the famous baby snatching. Winnie meets Eggs, who is prowling, seeking his kidnapped friends.

The Boxtrolls, hardly based whatsoever on the credited source, Alan Snow's Here Be Monsters!, is another amazing feat of stop-motion animation by the Portland-based studio Laika (Caroline, Paranorman.) It's surprising how smoothly a number of visual styles are blended here. In their phosphorescent realm below the streets, the trolls look like Pee-wee's Playhouse refugees, gentle trogs resembling Wayne White and Gary Panter's creatures. John Tenniel, Lewis Carroll's collaborator, could have created the "White Hats"—the decaying mustachioed royals, obsessed with cheese-tastings. The "red hats"—the troll-hunters who long for their place at the cheese-table—are crafted with that delight in human malformation that spurred the old British tv show Spitting Image.

The Boxtrolls is as much nouveau-cabaret as it is steampunk. The grotesque is never far away. (Winnie, the prettiest creature in the film, pulls wrathful faces—she's an infuriated Shirley Temple.) Astor Piazzolla-like keyboards are in the air. Central to the Trubshaw Day festivities is a corseted "Krakovakian" diva named Mme. Frou-Frou, who is supposed to be a red-hot number. Seeing her on stage, one remembers how Rocky the Squirrel would mutter "That face! Where have I seen that face!" when blinded by one of Boris Badenov's disguises.

The Boxtrolls is a narrow-escape actioner, a young-love story, and parable of how fear of the Other is used to keep the populace in line. And it is noticeably rather left-leaning. That's not my first criteria for a cartoon, but I'll certainly take it. Recently, the final flange of the Atlas Shrugged trilogy slunk into a few of our nation's theaters. Seeing how well The Boxtrolls presents its political argument, this film suggests an adaptation of Ayn Rand's prose cinderblock might have made more money and been better done as animationÉperhaps with funny animals.

Cartoons have slants—The Lion King isn't apolitical—and The Boxtrolls makes pointed comedy of what Marx called "commodity fetishism." It's sometimes even a little didactic: the villains reassure themselves that they're doing the right thing when capturing and terrifying these little creatures. "Do the boxtrolls understand the duality of good and evil?" one of the gang asks portentously, like an editorial writer laying it on thick about the Muslim Threat. This is a movie that ends with an emblem of royalty being tossed on the rubbish heap as a hit by pinko folkie Malvina Reynolds (covered by the Oregonian band Loch Lomond) clears the theater. I didn't want to be cleared; I would have happily sat for seconds.

The Boxtrolls

93 MIN., PG

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