An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · September 29, 2014, 9:46 PM EDT

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on September 29, 2014, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

The old-fashioned process of stop-motion animation has never looked so state-of-the-art as it does in The Boxtrolls, in which the team from the Laika studio go for something a little kinder and gentler than in Coraline and ParaNorman.

Eschewing the more macabre shadings of those two films, directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi and screenwriters Irena Brignull and Adam Pava create a world of lighthearted grotesque in which, in time-honored animated tradition, the “monsters” are more human than they first appear and some of the people are the real monsters. We’re first introduced to the titular odd little creatures—who dress in scavenged boxes, hence their collective name—as they ascend to the surface of the hilltop city of Cheesebridge and spirit away an infant boy to their subterranean realm. Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright), as he comes to be known for his package of choice, grows up considering himself one of the Boxtrolls, even though he can speak English while his adoptive family chatters away in gibberish only they and he can understand. (It’s hard not to think of Despicable Me’s Minions while watching them, though these creatures evince specific personalities instead of being part of a rambunctious herd.)

Meanwhile, up top, one Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley, clearly having loads of malicious fun and channeling Timothy Spall) has mounted a campaign to rid Cheesebridge’s underworld of the Boxtrolls—one that, as seen in an early example of the movie’s graceful nonverbal storytelling, has been rather successful. Snatcher’s efforts are part of his maneuvering to gain entree into Cheesebridge’s high society, led by Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), who have a gastronomic obsession with, naturally, various aromatic cheeses. Portley-Rind’s fixations on the trappings of his class have led him to neglect his daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning). Circumstances will lead Eggs and Winnie to meet, and for her to become Eggs’ ally as the conflict between Snatcher and the Boxtrolls comes to a head.

The overall trajectory of The Boxtrolls’ storyline (based on a portion of Alan Snow’s book Here Be Monsters!) is fairly predictable—lacking the revelatory surprises of ParaNorman, though it contains the same resonant subtexts regarding fear leading to persecution. And as they always have, the Laika team have made the details count. They’ve pulled from different international influences—the humor is sometimes veddy British, certain visuals draw from German Expressionism and Cheesebridge’s narrow, windy roads and Dario Marianelli’s zither-tinged score evoke France—to come up with a world that is completely coherent and fully fleshed out. From the first scene, every setting is suffused in telling little embellishments, and the filmmakers go remarkably mobile with the camera; a ballroom-dance sequence, with the camera swooping around, over and under the hand-animated participants, may have you breaking your engagement with the story to wonder just how the heck it was accomplished.

Keeping your attention on Eggs’ journey is Wright, enthusiastically performing a role that follows a familiar path for this sort of film. Winnie has more individualism to her; not just an innocent girl swept up in an adventure unlike anything she’s ever imagined, she’s fascinated by the Boxtrolls and the stories of their alleged gruesomeness, and is a bit disappointed when they prove not to live amidst piles of bones. Fanning gives her a warm, spunky and engaged reading; she’s not just voicing a part, she’s creating a fully realized character. Beyond Kingsley and Harris, a number of other dependable talents add zesty support, including Toni Collette, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Simon Pegg and Maurice LaMarche.

Throughout, the animation itself is a wonder to behold, offering a parade of eccentric and amusing sights (love the way the Boxtrolls assemble into one giant cube when they head to sleep). Even when the filmmakers go for a Big Action Climax that feels overscaled even for the expansive scenario they’ve created, their stop-motion style retains its distinct personality. Nowhere is that better expressed than in a marvelous bit that runs midway through the closing credits, when is both meta about this particular art form and a wonderful celebration of it.