Several years ago in the small town of Cheesebridge, there was a crime committed that demonised a whole section of its society. They were the Boxtrolls, and they lived in the sewers, only emerging at night through the manhole covers to scavenge bits and pieces from whatever the townsfolk had left around during the day to build their subterranean contraptions. These creatures were timid and dressed in cardboard boxes which they could use as hiding places, disappearing into them like a tortoise in its shell, but the humans were not prepared to consider them worth co-existing with since they kidnapped one of their own children, the so-called Trubshawe baby, and spirited him away to their lair. This is why the Boxtroll hunter Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley) is dead set on exterminating them...
For their next film after Coraline and ParaNorman, the Laika studio, specialists and champions of stop motion animation, chose to adapt Alan Snow's book Here Be Monsters, an ambiguous title that could refer to the creatures who live under the people's feet, or perhaps the people themselves for being so willing to want to see them all wiped out. Some saw an allegory of the Holocaust with the events of the film, which was too specific a reference and too much of a stretch, but the theme of anti-victimisation would fit that all-too-common impulse historically recurring down time, so it was clear there was a lesson to be learned by taking something away from the movie. Whether you wanted to get too heavy with that message was very much up to the viewer.
Nevertheless, there was such an earnestness to the story that it did tend to sap the fun out of what was, as ever with this studio, an exquisitely designed animation. The most notable comparison you could make was between this and those Eastern European dramas that used to end up at all four corners of the Earth dubbed into various languages, films and television shows like The Singing Ringing Tree, Three Wishes for Cinderella or The Secret of Steel City, all those off-kilter-looking moral fantasies that would be so memorably strange when you first encountered them they would surface throughout your life when prompted by a trip down memory lane. Although this was an American movie, it owed a large debt to at least the animation style pioneered behind the Iron Curtain for many decades, though if anything slicker.
It was still recognisably stop motion, and you had the impression that was important to Laika, sort of the Aardman equivalent from the other side of the Atlantic, though in this case they used just as many British voices as they did American, and those Americans put on English accents, all the better to conjure up that classic fairy tale tone. We catch up with the Trubshawe baby when he's growing into his early teenage years (Isaac Hempstead Wright) as the Boxtrolls didn't eat him as was supposed, they adopted him as one of their own and he alone among the human characters is able to understand their gobbledegook (invented by voice artiste extraordinaire Dee Bradley Baker). The supposed monsters, as was the case in many family animations around this era since Toy Story's mutant toys subplot, are actually thoroughly decent and misunderstood, not that Snatcher (a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang reference?) will consider any other opinion than his own.
Snatcher was a vain, petty villain, unable to see his own deep flaws which will prove his undoing in somewhat hackneyed fashion, though at least those drawbacks were eccentric as he longs to taste cheese with the cheese-obsessed leaders of the community in spite of being allergic to the stuff, and wishes to wear the white hat of that standing too. The chief (Jared Harris) has a daughter, Winnie (Elle Fanning doing a creditable voice), who neglected by her parents is preoccupied with the horrible myths around the Boxtrolls, and it is she who provides the link between them and the humans as she realises where she went wrong in getting to know the kidnapped kid, now named Eggs after the word on his cardboard box. There was a lot about fitting in here, and justifying yourself in the eyes of others, something the film acknowledges is difficult if you're as nervous as the title characters, interesting in that it tells us we are can be brought low or lifted high depending on who accepts us. It was a shade heavy handed, then, but the imagery was attractively grotesque. Music by Dario Marianelli.