Do not think outside “The Boxtrolls.” Instead, give yourself over to the movie’s captivating, inventive, scary-hilarious world. Jump in feet first, just like a Boxtroll entering the sewer system, and experience an immensely satisfying, all-ages fable packed with plot twists, adventure, humor, nobility, wrongdoing, bravado, creepiness and silliness.
The movie’s crowning achievement, above and beyond its awesome achievement in stop-motion animation, is how it pulls off the touchy job of modulating these distinct tones into a fully realized whole. It creates and comfortably inhabits its own universe, while reaching out thematically to ours.
Comfortable in its own skin, the movie quotes from all over the place: Monty Python, Charles Dickens, steampunk, Tim Burton, “ParaNorman” (the movie is from Laika Studios, which brought us that movie as well as “Coraline”), even “E.T.” There’s real brilliance here, because tone is everything and so many movies blow it on this score.
In the huge towering cone of a city called Cheesebridge, life proceeds in a tenuous balance. The effete nobles would rather sniff, sample and discuss stinky cheeses than grapple with such dull issues as funding for schools and roads. The populace is held in check with the promulgation of fear about a mysterious common enemy — the nocturnal Boxtrolls who, legend has it, feed on babies and live underground among piles of bones and puddles of blood.
In fact, as the opening reveals, the trolls are a harmless society of bug-eyed tinkers, hoarders, junk stealers and whirligig creators whose primary diet is ladybugs and inchworms. Their name derives from their bodies, made from cardboard boxes thrown out by the real world. Boxtrolls express themselves in grunts and squawks, and show joy by drumming on their box bodies. They love music, dance and play, and live in caverns in the city’s sewer system.
In a side cavern, we witness a troll named Fish dote on his adorable single-toothed son, Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright, who plays Bran Stark on “Game of Thrones”). The boy coos with delight when he gets a filthy teddy bear from Dad, then promptly rips off the bear’s head and extracts the tiny music box from inside. Now that’s a gift.
Meantime, up top, a trio of snaggletoothed henchmen is led by Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley). (This may be the most dentally challenged cast in movie history.) Snatcher vows to eradicate the Boxtrolls in order to claim the coveted white hat signifying all that is respectable and law-abiding. He gets around town in a smoke-belching machine that resembles the love child of a royal carriage and a Transformer.
Among myriad delights, Snatcher is the movie’s most indelible creation, looking as if an elder Alice Cooper had left his hair unwashed for weeks because he was busy gorging on State Fair food. We learn that there is more to Snatcher than first meets the eye.
We also learn Eggs’ origin story, which puts the lad in a ballpark with his wee redheaded love interest, Winnifred (Elle Fanning), daughter of the big cheese, Lord Portly-Rind.
A chase sequence in a giant warehouse unspools alongside a cheese-allergy scene that young viewers will find delightfully gross, right up to its therapeutic, leeches-centric conclusion.
Eggs’ identity crisis, and his growing bravery, fuel the film’s beautifully choreographed finale, which is given added texture by deftly handled flashbacks.
Don’t hide. Be brave. You can change. To thine own self be true. “The Boxtrolls” delivers these familiar messages without a hint of lecturing and within a totally absorbing 90 minutes of stop-motion movie magic.
On Twitter: @ClaudePeck