Though we can't fault Laika for returning time and time again to the "misfit children" well, we're beginning to worry if the studio isn't dipping its bucket deep enough. Though it turned in two past entries worth remembering - Coraline was good, but just shy of great; ParaNorman was great, but just shy of excellent - and repeats this achievement with The Boxtrolls, its latest is perhaps the boldest evidence of Laika's limiting trepidation.
The film actually turns the "misfit" gambit on its head, introducing a character who fits in so perfectly with his friends and family - a race of friendly subterranean hoarder goblins - that years pass before he realizes he's not actually one of them. Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), so named for the box that guards his unseemly torso, is a young boy raised by the sweet and creative (but ultimately cowardice) Boxtroll family that lives below the misguided aristocracy of Cheesebridge, a town decidedly phobic of its underground neighbors. Led by a comically menacing vagabond with aspirations for glory (played with flair by Ben Kingsley), the Cheesebridgers agree to rid their streets and lives of the vile little creatures forever.
A few steps beyond the average 101 Dalmations rip-off, The Boxtrolls actually puts a great deal of energy into exploring the blurry dichotomy of good vs. evil, turning would-be mindless henchmen Trout and Pickles (Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade) into well-meaning patriots led astray by propaganda. But it doesn't get too heady - Frost and (especially) Ayoade provide the biggest and most consistent laughs of the film. To their credit, Boxtrolls might be the funniest thing Laika has produced yet. The film, whose cast also includes a plucky and petulant Elle Fanning, a snooty and oblivious Jared Harris, and a thickheaded and maniacal Tracy Morgan, is eager to get especially wacky when it plays with the weird worlds of Boxtrolls and cheese-obsessed noblemen. But it's just too darn afraid to get emotional.
The Boxtrolls barely scratches the surface of its characters' relationships, which is particularly destructive to a story about family, understanding, and bravery. Instead of watching young Eggs' relationship with his surrogate father Fish (a babbling Dee Bradley Baker) evolve, we hear prototypical speeches about being yourself, standing up for what's right, and a few more all-purpose themes. The Boxtrolls' goofiness is grade A, but it cuts through the hints of biting emotional material, rendering the ordeal about half as affective as it might have been. Drop your bucket deeper next time, Laika. You're so close to that masterpiece...