Beneath the streets live the hunted Boxtrolls, so named for the boxes they wear around their torsos. Slightly feared and mostly loathed by the humans of Cheesebridge, the Boxtrolls are actually just curious tinkers who rifle through trash piles for useful gadgets. Their underground lair is a wonder of discarded light bulbs and crankshafts, forming contraptions that vaccuum-tube them between above and below ground. Their pidgin, Minions-esque language belies an engineer's spirit, something that makes Eggs (Isaac Hampstead-Wright) a perfect fit for them. Eggs, so named for the egg crate he wears, fell in with the Boxtrolls as a baby, and is introduced being given a teddy bear by his caregiver troll, Fish (Dee Bradley Baker). Eggs viciously rips the head off the bear, focused on the music box inside it. By the time Eggs is a teenager, the pile that the Boxtrolls sleep in has gotten smaller, as Snatcher slowly picks them off one by one. Eggs wants to go searching for his missing comrades, but his surrogate father counsels caution and fear. Fish's reticence is well-earned after seeing so many Boxtrolls disappear, and he eventually joins their ranks thanks to some bad luck, prompting Eggs to venture out into the daylight to try and rescue him.
The Boxtrolls has room for two fish-out-of-water stories amongst all its world-building. One is Eggs rediscovering that he's a human and trying to learn a strange new set of customs. The other involves Portley-Rind's rebellious and neglected daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning), who spots Eggs out at night and follows him home. Obsessed with violence and gore, Winnie's just as interested in Boxtroll society as Fish is afraid of human society. She serves as a guide for Eggs and a link between worlds. For Eggs, his sojourn above ground allows for more detail on the strange humans, like their holidays and the performers who celebrate them. Having such a dichotomy upstairs and downstairs, and having characters that live in each world act indifferent or frightened towards their counterparts, allows for a large amount of discovery in the Boxtrolls, something Laika is particularly adept at.
Eggs and Winnie form an endearing team, and Snatcher is a ridiculous but threatening villain, but Annable and Stacchi aren't satisfied with only staffing their film with compelling main characters. Dee Bradley Baker is the voice-acting pro amongst the cast, and the various Boxtrolls he voices have their rudimentary grunts and monosyllables infused with feeling, particularly Fish. Portley-Rind's fellow white hats are amusing caricatures of the idle rich, isolated in their mansions with their piles of brie and gouda. Snatcher's underlings would steal the film if there weren't so many other actors guarding their territory. Tracy Morgan voices Mr. Pickles, a near-feral diminutive maniac given to yelling what he's doing while he's doing it (I'm swinging on a chain!). Two uncertain red-hats named Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles, voiced by Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade, have a philosophical back-and-forth that serves as the main thematic resonance in this otherwise frivolous and delightful film. They bicker about the nature of good and evil and what side they find themselves on, becoming less sure as Snatcher gets increasingly malevolent. As is typical of Laika end credits, where the puppeteers and animators give the viewer a glimpse of their Herculean tasks, Trout and Pickles ingeniously occupy this space, commenting on their place in the universe while time-lapsed animators whiz around their puppet bodies.
The Boxtrolls isn't as powerful as other Laika offerings, and it doesn't stay with the viewer long after as a result, but a high bar is a welcome problem for a studio. What it lacks in emotional oomph, it more than makes up for in pure fun and watchability, making it the Laika film I'm most likely to revisit. With its studio-best voice cast and its delirious world-building, The Boxtrolls is Laika's funniest effort, and somehow, despite the bloated characters and monstrous allergic reactions, it's most charming, too. Not every film needs to make me well up. B+