They’re not cute, they’re not funny. They’re neither scary nor special nor even all that original. Ladies and gentlemen, they’re “The Boxtrolls,” and as animated kid-movie characters go, these drab, cardboard-clad critters are about as compelling as a bunch of pet rocks. Repeating a lot of the same beats from the studio’s first two stop-motion adventures, “Coraline” and “ParaNorman” — a pair of Gothic fantasies in which outcast kids play intermediary between superstitious humans and their supernatural neighbors — Laika’s disappointing latest represents a baffling misappropriation of talent. Hundreds of gifted artists have poured untold hours into bringing to life this relentlessly unappealing script, ever so loosely adapted from Alan Snow’s “Here Be Monsters” book series, yielding only modestly better B.O. prospects for the company, owing more to their reputation than anything this pic delivers.
In the tradition of so many other kidlit-to-cartoon adaptations, from “Shrek” to “How to Train Your Dragon,” the writers have taken only the thinnest sliver of inspiration from the source material — in this case, the Steampunk city of Ratbridge (rechristened Cheesebridge for the film) and the whimsical species of boxtrolls. As afraid of humans as the humans are of them, these reclusive nocturnal creatures live beneath the streets of Cheesebridge, mumbling a sort of Ewok-like nonsense language and popping in and out of their boxes like kleptomaniac hermit crabs, stealing whatever’s left outdoors after dark.
One night, the boxtrolls take an infant back underground with them and raise him as one of their own. Assumed kidnapped, the missing “Trubshaw Baby” makes it easy for Archibald Snatcher (who looks like a tubercular Timothy Spall, but is voiced by Ben Kingsley) to spread nasty rumors about the boxtrolls and offer his own services for their eradication. Like a sinister Pied Piper of Hamelin, Snatcher gleefully launches into his genocidal campaign, all with the aim of earning a place among the White Hat-wearing aristocracy, led by Lord Portley-Rind (a delightfully distracted Jared Harris), who spend their evenings sitting around eating cheese.
Meanwhile, growing up underground among the boxtrolls, totally oblivious to the fact that he’s not really one of them, the boy (“Games of Thrones’” Isaac Hempstead Wright) comes be known as “Eggs,” after the carton that serves as his clothing. (His best friends are Fish and Shoe.) Given the peculiar rules of the parallel universe where the story takes place, directors Anthony Stacchi (“Open Season”) and Graham Annable (a videogame and comicbook vet) have a lot of ground to cover in the pic’s first reel, and it doesn’t help that it’s unusually difficult for audiences to figure out the film’s emotional core, from which all else should naturally follow. Judging by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava’s script, it’s as if no one at Laika ever had to pitch the project, and now that it exists, it’s tough to figure out an entry point.
Not until super-late in this inelegantly structured story — when Cheesebridge’s only other child character, Winnifred Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning) meets Eggs and follows him underground to boxtroll HQ — do we learn that the whole thing is intended as some sort of commentary on family. Winnie delivers a long speech on what fathers are, since Eggs grew up without one, and the audience is supposed to recognize that her dad’s a deadbeat, while all these misunderstood monsters have served as a remarkably supportive surrogate clan. So maybe families aren’t as narrowly defined as society’s been telling us (hint, hint), which would be a fine moral, if the movie didn’t immediately bludgeon that lesson with a grotesquely over-the-top finale, in which Snatcher unleashes something called the “Mecha-Drill” on Cheesebridge, sending Dario Marianelli’s orchestral score into overdrive.
Ever since making its feature debut with “Coraline” in 2009, Laika has edged its way to the front of the stop-frame game, innovating a proprietary face-replacement technology that allows for the most versatile and expressive performances ever seen in the labor-intensive animation technique. (The film features a nifty end-credits joke, in which reluctantly evil henchmen voiced by Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost raise existential questions while hands-on Laika topper Travis Knight can be seen animating the exchange.)
Before the Portland outfit arrived on the scene, Bristol-based Aardman Animation was the undisputed master, supplying slightly cruder craftsmanship but a decidedly wacky British wit. With “The Boxtrolls,” Laika appears to be synthesizing some of the most successful Aardman ingredients — big lips, bad teeth and a cheese-obsessed inventor, a la Wallace and Gromit; an elaborate underground world straight out of “Flushed Away”; plus silly voices courtesy of Simon Pegg and a raft of other U.K. comics — but without so much as a dash of that studio’s charm.
Here, the meticulously crafted world is stunning to behold, imagined to the minutest detail and photographed with the sort of dramatic lighting and dynamic camera movement rarely seen in stop-motion. Trouble is, it’s not a place most folks would care to spend any time. Above ground, the humans are ruthless American caricatures of ineffectual European dandies, while the boxtrolls’ domain is even less appealing. It features a few nice touches, like the way they pack up and stack themselves into a neatly ordered cube to sleep, but mostly, it’s a dirty place where vaguely Minion-like creatures eat bugs and live in squalor — hardly a “Peter Pan”-like Neverland that Winnie and audiences can’t wait to visit and hope never to leave.
Trolls can be tricky that way, though there are no shortage of the cartoon buggers on the way, from the magical support crew seen in last year’s “Frozen” to a pair of upcoming DreamWorks Animation features (Guillermo del Toro’s “Trollhunters” and another pic based on the frizzy-haired Danish toy line). Apart from a couple clever Eric Idle-penned songs, “The Boxtrolls” doesn’t feel especially distinct from Laika’s past two films or from other toons in the pipeline, begging the question why the team, which typically eschews safe marketing-driven bets in favor of more original (and narrowly targeted) offerings, didn’t abandon this concept and develop another project when they failed to crack the story on this one.
Perhaps the creative team simply fell in love with the world of Cheesebridge, which presented an entire island city to construct, along with a host of distinctive-looking characters, as vividly hued as they are oddly shaped. While his cheese-craving motives border on ridiculous, Snatcher makes an especially rich villain to animate, owing to both his cross-dressing alter ego Madame Frou Frou and the nasty allergic reaction that swells his face in the presence of fromage — to say nothing of Kingsley’s snarlingly over-the-top performance.
Compared to the above-ground world, with its steep streets and sharp corners seen both by day and night, the boxtrolls’ tunnels and caverns seem rather plain. So do the boxtrolls themselves: stumpy, gargoyle-like creatures who occasionally charm with their disobedient dog-like antics, but lack the memorable personalities of the Seven Dwarfs and other classic cartoon companions. If the idea here was to buy Snow’s book for these rascals, then junk the rest, instead of recycling Pixar tricks (during Eggs early bonding montage) and the same preachy anti-prejudice lessons seen in “ParaNorman,” the Laika team really ought to have thought outside the box.