Based on Alan Snow's novel Here Be Monsters!, The Boxtrolls takes place in the network of sewers beneath the city of Cheesebridge, where a society of trolls, naked but for the tattered boxes they wear, tinker with the objects they find during their brief nighttime journeys to the upper world. They are gentle creatures -- even when their own lives at stake -- but when a baby boy is "stolen" from his father, the boxtrolls earn a murderous reputation. Curfews are enforced, and the boxtroll-extermination service led by the evil Archibald Snatcher (voice of Ben Kingsley), who was actually responsible for the child's disappearance, threatens the continued survival of the species. Eventually, the baby, christened "Eggs" (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) due to the picture of an egg on his box, leaves the sewers to save the boxtrolls and confirm if his true identity is troll, boy, or something in-between.
Cheesebridge, seemingly composed of equal parts cobblestone and dairy products, is the kind of town one would expect from a tryst between prerevolutionary France and Halloween Town from The Nightmare Before Christmas. The film was developed by Laika, the same studio responsible for Coraline and ParaNorman, and the stop-motion style here is as visually inspired -- fanciful, yet macabre -- as anything they've put out.
It's the perfect backdrop for the movie's atmosphere; however, this setting muddies the message of The Boxtrolls a bit. The Snatcher, for all his villainy, is a product of poverty, while Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) is preoccupied with wealth and the rest of the population are all too eager to form a mob and don their pitchforks at a moment's notice. Although it's admirable for a picture to acknowledge the complicated nature of social injustice and economic disparity, this theme is delivered too haphazardly to make much of an impact.
Luckily, the film eventually corrects itself and focuses on a target rarely mentioned in movies intended for children: complacency. The townsfolk are complacent in their false beliefs; the rich and poor are complacent in their societal roles; Snatcher's men stay complacently by his side despite their growing discomfort about his plans; and the gentle boxtrolls are complacent to maintain the status quo, even at the cost of their lives. It's because of this complacency that Snatcher's evil plans are allowed to grow and thrive. It is a sign of respect for the young audience of The Boxtrolls that the film manages to make a statement about the conditions needed to create monsters out of men -- and it does so without losing its whimsy and sense of humor along the way.