One of the impressive things about “The Boxtrolls” is how quickly it establishes just what exactly boxtrolls are. It’s complicated: Boxtrolls are odd gnomelike creatures that live beneath the streets of Cheesebridge, living off the town’s rubbish and clothing themselves in discarded boxes.
Cheesebridge is a vertiginous 19th-century hamlet, apparently in England. This is key, because the film’s cheeky humor and dark satire is in a British vein that stretches from Monty Python to Wallace &Gromit.
The boxtrolls have raised an orphaned human boy, Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright), from infancy. When the boxtrolls are targeted for destruction by an evil exterminator named Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), Eggs and his new human friend Winnie (Elle Fanning) must save the day.
Mr. Snatcher wants to join the town’s elite, the White Hats, who sit around in their mansions and eat all the cheese. Their leader is the clueless Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), who’s partly responsible for Cheesebridge residents blaming everything on the boxtrolls.
The incredibly detailed 3D animation (a blend of stop-motion and computer) comes from Laika Studios, the people who made “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.” Like those movies, this one has a taste for the macabre that makes it closer to a pungent blue cheese than a pleasant gouda.
The designs and characters are reminiscent of the morbid subject matter of Roald Dahl, and I thought I detected an influence from “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” too. The film gets downright grotesque at times, especially when Snatcher’s cheese allergy causes his face to bloat in horrible bulges.
Grown-up viewers can enjoy the satire, including the evil minions (Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade) who believe they must actually be on the side of good. By the way, those two figure in an end-credits sequence that should not be missed.
The voice acting is very funny and the 3D is ingenious. The main knock here is that — like all movies now — there must be a big violent climax. It’s tiresome after all the clever work that has come before.
That aside, “The Boxtrolls” is very well done. It will be interesting, though, to see if kids respond to its dark world, which is crammed with hideous creatures, torture chambers, and boxtrolls who really aren’t very cuddly. This movie makes “Despicable Me” look like “Dumbo” by comparison.
“The Boxtrolls” (3 1/2 stars)
The boxtrolls are gnome-like creatures who live beneath the streets of Cheesebridge and must defend themselves against the town exterminator. This macabre but funny 3D animated film is very well done, with a strong vein of British humor, even if its morbid tone might be a bit much for little kids.
Rating: PG, for violence