By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As the hipsters of animation, Portland, Oregon-based Laika studios is not afraid to play on the fringe with its latest film "The Boxtrolls," and its lead stars are not your average cute animated monsters.
"We're never going to make things that are middle of the road or inoffensive," said Laika's President Travis Knight.
"The Boxtrolls," out in U.S. theaters on Friday, makes stars out of its odd, grotesque little grunting green monsters who are named after the cardboard boxes they wear, such as Fish and Shoe. The creatures are feared by the residents of the whimsical town Cheesebridge for their alleged human-eating traits.
""We could have gone the standard animation route where they aren't really monsters. They're fuzzy little adorable balls of fluff, but that plays against the basic idea of something being marginalized for what they look like," Knight said.
"This society hates these things because of appearance and how they've been presented."
Laika, the independent studio behind 2009's "Coraline" and 2012's "ParaNorman," both nominated for Oscars, prides itself on creating aesthetically different tales from other animation studios such as Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks.
"Family films have become more watered down because you're trying to be calculating populous in your approach, where you have to appeal to every possible demographic," Knight said.
Laika's selling point lies in hand-made artistry, creating miniature physical sets and puppets and using stop-motion animation, where each frame was positioned by hand and captured by camera by 400 artists working over 18 months. The only computer-generated imagery used was to build the backdrop to the physical sets.
Based on books by British author Alan Snow and inspired by British comedy troupe Monty Python, "The Boxtrolls" tells a coming-of-age tale with a Dickensian twist.
The Boxtrolls are forced to hide underground, where they are raising an orphaned human boy they name Eggs, as the hideous Archibald Snatcher attempts to climb to high society by capturing and eliminating the misunderstood monsters.
Eggs comes to the Boxtrolls' rescue and tries to find his own identity with the help of Winnie, an upper class child who is trying to communicate with her aristocratic father.
While the story is predominantly British in tone and cast, led by Ben Kingsley as the voice of Snatcher and "Game of Thrones" star Isaac Hempstead Wright as Eggs, with American actors Elle Fanning and Tracy Morgan also donning English accents, the directors feel the story would appeal to a wide audience.
"It's an universal story," said co-director Anthony Stacchi. "It's the journey from innocence to experience, ... a naive little boy growing up, and I can see those from Iran, China, from anywhere in the world."
"The Boxtrolls" earned mixed reviews from critics, with The Hollywood Reporter calling it "stubbornly unappealing," while UK film magazine Empire praised its mixture of "slapstick and silliness" and "nefarious plots."
It is projected by BoxOffice.com to make $14 million in its opening weekend.
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Patricia Reaney and Marguerita Choy)