Mud, gutters, caves, dust, old wood, scrap metal, faded product packaging: these are privileged objects of desire for the weird creatures of The Boxtrolls. Breaking from the pack of clean, bright, primary-color-filled animated movies, and pledging more allegiance to oddball films like The Nightmare Before Christmas, LAIKA’s third feature (the debut from co-directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable) presents a grimy fantasy world where the heroic arrives wearing sooty shades of brown, gray and black.

The screenplay by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava simplifies Alan Snow’s novel, Here Be Monsters, to revolve around a boy named Eggs (the voice of Isaac Hempstead-Wright), who has been raised underground by Boxtrolls. Shy, peaceful and distortion-cute, the little mutants wear discarded boxes, picking through trash for whatever they can find to fortify their elaborately outfitted cavern. Found and cared for by the Boxtrolls, Eggs believes himself to be a one, too. That is, until he goes above ground and meets the mostly-rotten humans of Cheesebridge.

The rottenest of them all is Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), a disgusting man with bulbous features, rotten teeth, greasy hair and a passion for status. Setting up the Boxtrolls as monsters to be exterminated, he believes that eradicating them will boost his position in the city’s high society circle. Eggs, meanwhile, collaborating with young Winnifred (Elle Fanning), the daughter of rich and powerful Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), tries to stop Snatcher’s plan for destroying the only family the lost boy has ever known.

If there’s a complaint to be made about The Boxtrolls, it’s here, in its adherence to plotting that follows common family film formula. An outsider struggles for an identity and earns it by Fighting the Evil Villain. It's an overdone element in the universe of animated films and adventurous audiences will feel themselves wanting more. Having said that, as a plot point, there’s nothing inherently wrong with its existence, and the fact that LAIKA has gone down the road most traveled is not a crime. It’s even understandable in the context of the rest of the film’s determination to be different, with its explorations of adult integrity, social-climbing, indifferent parenting and class conformity.

Boxtrolls could win on looks alone, anyway, almost wildly so. Character and production design is fantastical, perfectly detailed and boldly strange. Every thing in every frame refuses cuteness like an allergy. Snatcher, in particular, is such a repulsive character that, in 3D, you might feel like averting your gaze. And there's no backing down. The creators demonstrate a deep commitment to the grotesque, the strange, and the freakish, and the film presents a coherent universe of anti-attractiveness with confidence. (Not ugliness; that’s an adjective that belongs to cheap, cynical failures like Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.) This makes it that rare thing in mainstream film: a bold aesthetic move wearing its Dickensian dirtpride like a rusty medal, daring you to suggest it's not as beautiful as it knows itself to be.


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