Animated ‘Boxtrolls:’ Zany British humor masks a moral

Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi and writers Irena Brignull and Adam Pava have collectively worked on one animated feature in those capacities. How did they get “The Boxtrolls” so right?

This visually inventive, fast-moving combination of elements from “Paranorman,” Wallace and Gromit movies and Monty Python – plus touches all its own – has popped out of nowhere to enliven a dull fall. It’s the rare animated film that might amuse adults and kids while slipping a useful message to the latter.

A friend once claimed that half the works of art from Great Britain are about its class system. This film, which adapts “Here Be Monsters!” by English author Alan Snow, fits in: The cringingly creepy villain, exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), belongs to the red-hatted working class of his unnamed city. (The movie seems to take place in Victorian England.)

He tells the white-hatted town council, a group of doddering snobs fixated on cheese, that a boxtroll has stolen a boy for dinner. He proposes to eliminate every boxtroll in return for his own white hat and admission to their ultra-private tasting room. The writers savage all classes: Social climbers, blue-collar bozos and especially the idle rich, who decide to buy the world’s largest wheel of brie instead of funding a children’s hospital.

Of course, the boxtrolls turn out to be harmless creatures who take trash down to the sewer system, where they fabricate fabulous inventions. They raise Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) to be one of them, outfitting him with a cardboard box in which to hide when humans come by. (The trolls name themselves for whatever’s depicted on the boxes: Fish, Shoes, etc.) But Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) and his council don’t care what Snatcher does, as long as they’re left to sniff Limburger.

Visually, “The Boxtrolls” resembles “Paranorman” and the great 2009 film “Coraline,” with angular figures and off-kilter dwellings. Otherwise, the sensibility remains English almost from top to bottom.

A major character cross-dresses in the best tradition of British pantomime. The script is rife with Python-esque cheese jokes, from an Italian quartet singing about provolone to a drummer named Hal Vartis. Snatcher’s lugubrious henchmen (Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade) mull the quandary of doing evil in an allegedly good cause. Snatcher becomes an exaggerated version of Dickens’ Uriah Heep, submissively wringing his hands while plotting to crush people who consider him too lowly to respect.

The movie’s not perfect: We jump into it with no back story or explanation, and it takes awhile to catch up. We don’t know why the town co-existed peacefully with boxtrolls for years and now suddenly hates them, unless the writers are just criticizing mob mentality. (“Paranorman” did that, too.)

Yet “Boxtrolls” doesn’t drag for one minute, and performances sparkle. Kingsley has never been more entertaining, and Elle Fanning shines as Winifred Portley-Rind, spunky daughter of the spineless lord. This no-nonsense heroine falls into the hands of the boxtrolls, shakes her red curls and snaps, “If you’re going to eat me, just get it over with. I’m sure I’m delicious.” She is, and so’s the film.

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