The stop-motion animation house LAIKA ("Coraline," "ParaNorman") continues to build its reputation as the anti-Disney by handcrafting dark tales for kids. "The Boxtrolls" falls into the category of classical fairy tale, with its shadowy world inhabited by innocents in contention with monstrous adults.
Perhaps with Pixar pictures like "Up" and "WALL-E" in mind, the first fifteen minutes of "The Boxtrolls" roll by with a minimum of dialogue to establish the picture's premise. In the English-accented village of Cheesebridge, the people live in fear of boxtrolls: underground-dwelling creatures that emerge at night to scavenge trash. Pest exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) pursues his sociopolitical aspiration -- to become one of the elite, cheese-eating "White Hats" -- by slandering the boxtrolls as baby-snatching murderers. In fact, the gremlin gadgeteers are benign and lovable (and, as such, suspiciously similar to the minions in "Despicable Me").
The boxtrolls are so nice that they have taken in an orphan human boy (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), who has grown up believing he is one of the boxtrolls, and is named Eggs for the label on the box he wears. The good-hearted Eggs focuses his existence on protecting the boxtrolls from those who misunderstand and persecute them, particularly Snatcher and his henchmen Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), Mr. Pickle (Richard Ayoade) and Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan).
Eggs also gains a defender in Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning), who stumbles onto the truth after going AWOL from her upper-crust White Hat parents (Jared Harris and Toni Collette). Eggs and Winnie's adventures include dodging Snatcher and his men, crashing a White Hat ball and encountering Eggs' long-lost father (Simon Pegg), who proudly notes his son's confident self-transformation as the life lesson that may save the day.
Many kids are likely to find "The Boxtrolls" scary, dank and generally off-putting, but those who like paging through Edward Gorey books and who devour Roald Dahl novels will consider it an early Halloween treat. Those amongst their parents who are Anglophiles will appreciate the presence of the likes of Pegg and Frost, as well as "The Boxtrolls Song" penned by Monty Python member Eric Idle and performed by the bad guy in drag (as one Madame Frou Frou).
The Gothic material derives from Alan Snow's novel "Here Be Monsters!," which directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi have visualized as a perversely grotty Old World Europe. The stop-motion animation, presented in 3-D in some theaters, bursts with rollercoaster-esque action sequences, but one might fairly call "The Boxtrolls" action-packed to a fault, given that the film is already halfway over before its protagonist gets any quality character development.
Certainly, the stealth allegory of the insidious nature of gossip as a tool of domination -- and the scathing class satire of misbegotten and socially unjust personal goals -- carry a productive sting that should leave kids smarting but a bit wiser. And the witty script (with henchmen pondering "the duality of good and evil") is part of the intellectual challenge. Just don't subject the weest ones in your family to this dark vision.
Rated PG for action, some peril and mild rude humor. One hour, 36 minutes.