Prepare to be dazzled by “The Boxtrolls.”
Such a mood it sets, right out of, if you will, the box. Shadowy figures with glowing yellow eyes glide through fog-shrouded Dickensian cobblestone streets making peculiar chittering noises. Sights and sounds of a nightmare fantasy in the offing? Not quite. A fantasy, for sure. A nightmare? No way.
Such characters you’ll meet once light is thrown on the subject.
First and foremost: the snaggletoothed denizens of the title. Trollish in aspect, grayish in skin tone, nocturnal in nature, and whimsical in temperament. Oh, and garbed in cardboard boxes. Hence their name.
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Also, a boy named Eggs (his name is derived from the box he wears), lovingly raised from infancy by these monsters who are not monsters. A boy who doesn’t know he’s a boy (they haven’t told him of his origins) but, clad in a box, thinks he’s a troll.
Too, there’s a feisty pigtailed redheaded girl named Winnie (Elle Fanning) who’s been raised on fearsome troll tales, but also, oddly, relishes the thought of post-troll-banquet mountains of bones and rivers of blood, images grafted onto her overactive imagination by fearmongering grown-ups.
Those grown-ups all seem to have stepped from the pages of Dickens, with names like Mr. Gristle and Archibald Snatcher, and with their prominent noses, jutting ears, bad teeth, rotund or string-bean physiques, and hats. Oh, such hats. Towering stovepipe hats, which are a prime source of conflict in this twisty story. Good guys — stuffy town fathers — wear white headgear, while the villain, sporting a lopsided scarlet stovepipe, lusts to wear a white chapeau. And the only way he can win the right to do that is to rid the world of the pesky trolls.
A product of LAIKA, the Hillsboro, Oregon-based studio that made the excellent, unsettling “Coraline” and the oddball ghost tale “ParaNorman,” “Boxtrolls,” like those earlier features, uses one of the movies’ oldest techniques, stop-motion animation (made famous in the first “King Kong,” but nowadays significantly modernized by 3-D and computerized images) to create a picture that’s a visual feast. And its level of storytelling is superb: inventive, fast-moving, funny and touching.
Very loosely based on “Here Be Monsters!”, a 2005 fantasy novel by British author Alan Snow, “The Boxtrolls” chronicles the adventures of the boy, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), who wants to set society straight about the titular trolls who make their home in the tunnels under the town of Cheesebridge. They’re peaceable creatures, emerging at night to scavenge junk, which they then turn into peculiar mechanical gadgets. Old Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley with magnificent menace) cares nothing for that and clanks after the trolls in an infernal fire-propelled creature-catching machine.
The story turns into a contest between kids and adults, with Eggs and Winnie joining forces to try to save the childlike, misunderstood trolls from extermination by ultradevious and superevil Mr. Snatcher.
It’s by turns a wild ride — literally, in scenes where the trolls zip through their tunnels or slide down rooftops — and a poignant story of Eggs’ upbringing by the kindly trolls and of Winnie’s frustrated efforts to have her self-important father, the head white hat of Cheesebridge (Jared Harris), pay attention to her.
The humor ranges from slapstick to unexpectedly — and hilariously — philosophical as two of the more perceptive characters muse about the nature of their existence in a scene that breaks the fourth wall and reveals the larger universe outside their own.
For audiences of any age, “The Boxtrolls” is a total treat.