boxtrollsI remember when ParaNorman came out two years ago, I thought that stop-motion studio Laika’s animation couldn’t possibly get any better. That film already had such impossibly fluid and beautiful movement that there seemed to be no room for improvement. And yet along comes The Boxtrolls, which easily trumps the studio’s previous effort. This stuff could easily be mistaken for CGI, so detailed and seamless is the craftsmanship. Even the most minute bits of the costuming and background work are filled in, and if you know anything at all about the painstaking, laborious, sloth-paced process that is stop-motion, you’ll appreciate the art in play.

The Boxtrolls is so wondrous to look at that its actual plot could have been about lobotomized monkeys performing menial labor and I still probably would have recommended checking it out. But its story is a good one — Laika has improved not just its production but its writing this time around. Coraline had some airlessness in its pacing, and ParaNorman‘s laudable thematic goals didn’t totally track with what was going on in the story proper. Now, The Boxtrolls perfect — there’s a gag with the main villain cross-dressing and men mooning over him that’s eye-rollingly antiquated — but overall, it’s running a much tighter ship.

The eponymous boxtrolls are a race of diminutive creatures that live in the tunnels beneath Cheesebridge, a Victorian-Britian-esque town that’s taller than it is wide, built as it is into a steep hill in a very whimsical manner. The boxtrolls scavenge the residents’ garbage and use to to make charming inventions. They’re harmless and peace-loving, even taking in an orphaned human boy, whom they name Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright of Game of Thrones fame). However, the lies of devious exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) have convinced all of Cheesebridge that the boxtrolls are vicious and dangerous. When the boxtrolls venture above the ground each night, Snatcher is there to capture them. It’s up to Eggs and his new human friend Winnie (Elle Fanning) to stop Snatcher and convince the townsfolk that the boxtrolls mean them no harm.

The Boxtrolls has a fascinating sense of class consciousness that’s more nuanced than anything else I can think of that I’ve seen in a family film. Snatcher is motivated by a hunger for upward mobility. He’s a red hat of the lower classes who desires to get in with the white hats of the rich and powerful, and to get to sit at their table and eat fine cheese with them. None of that is metaphorical speech, by the way — the elites of the town literally wear white hats, and cheese is used as direct symbolism for power. Snatcher seeks to rise by demonizing those who have even less than he does, and by manipulating the fears and prejudices of the rest of the lower classes. He even uses propaganda reminiscent of the kind used by fascist states, such as posters and a “true story” play that’s really a pack of lies. The parallels in the treatment of the boxtrolls to real-world pogroms are plainly evident, but also ensconced enough in parable that the movie shouldn’t fly over the heads of children in the audience.

With this kind of foundation, the film is able to make well-trod lessons about conquering fear and the value of friends and family feel fresh. It even spreads a layer of tragedy onto Snatcher, whose company the white hats find repulsive, and who is actually allergic to cheese. Kingsley’s vocal performance is marvelous. He sounds nothing like himself, transforming his voice into an oily, sibilant drawl. But Snatcher is overshadowed in the cast by Winnie, who is a truly unique girl character. There’s a delightfully morbid edge to her personality — she has a nasty fascination with the boxtrolls because of their supposed bloodthirstiness. The rest of the cast is great as well, particularly Jared Harris as the preposterously snobby leader of the white hats and Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan as Snatcher’s trio of morally-ponderous henchmen.

Like Laika’s previous two films, The Boxtroll‘s curve of family-friendliness skews more towards older kids than to younger ones. A lot of the humor is based more on sight gags and dialogue that will likely make little sense to small children — not because they’re dirty but because they require a certain amount of savvy to understand. If they can handle it, then definitely take them, because this movie is a treat.