The titular protagonists of “The Boxtrolls” — an animated adventure loosely based on the book “Here Be Monsters!” by British author and illustrator Alan Snow — are a colony of lumpy, gray homunculi who live underground, where they build things, like their literary cousins the Borrowers, out of people’s castoff garbage. Taking their name from the commercial packaging that they wear and live in, Boxtrolls resemble nothing so much as nocturnally active vermin, running around the streets of England on their hind legs and popping in and out of their cardboard “shells” when startled, like turtles.
Thankfully, these are not the Teenage Mutant Ninja variety.
The Boxtrolls — conveniently named things like “Fish,” “Shoe” and “Fragile,” after the identifying labels on their boxes — are utterly delightful and original characters, brought to vivid, antic life in this stop-motion charmer from Laika studios. Yet as winsome as these critters are, it is the movie’s virtuosic animation itself that steals the show, dazzling our eyes with its technical artistry and drawing attention away from the film’s minor flaws, which include a somewhat plodding, slightly predictable plot.
That plot is set in motion by a human boy (voice of Isaac Hempstead Wright) who lives with, and considers himself one of, the Boxtrolls. On one of his nightly trash-collecting outings, Eggs, as the boy is called, runs into Winnie (Elle Fanning), a human girl from above ground. Soon, Eggs begins to question what he is doing in the sewers with a pack of adorably troglodytic scavengers who burble and squeak in a crude, Gremlin-like patois, while he speaks the King’s English. (How exactly a human boy came to talk like Oliver Twist in this company of pre-verbal brutes is never satisfactorily explained.)
The rest of Eggs’s back story, which is hinted at in a prologue, suggests there may be some justification to the human characterization of the Boxtrolls as baby-nabbers. As the story proceeds, we meet a villain named Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) who has been tasked with the methodical extermination of the Boxtrolls, who have been demonized by the human population.
With Winnie’s assistance, Eggs’s mission becomes the rescue of his friends and surrogate family, a process that leads, naturally, to the discovery of his true origins and the rehabilitation of the Boxtroll reputation.
The story’s moral — don’t put yourself or others in a judgmental box — is a sweet one, and well expressed. Still, it’s not the freshest sentiment in the world, is it?
Despite that, don’t be surprised if “The Boxtrolls” gets nominated for an Academy Award for best animated film.
It certainly deserves consideration, on visuals alone. Laika’s animators, who utilized 3-D printing to generate the roughly 1 1 / 2 million facial expressions for the character of Eggs, have outdone their previous work on “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” creating a feast for fans of old-school animation art.
The story of “The Boxtrolls,” in lesser hands, might have turned out only so-so. Under Laika’s loving, labor-intensive touch, it takes on a kind of magic.
★ ★ ★
PG. At area theaters. Contains mild action and occasional peril. 96 minutes.