While they may not have the name recognition of acclaimed, powerhouse studios like Pixar or Studio Ghibli, there’s few production houses more dedicated to the art of animation than Laika. The stop-motion dream factory’s output is understandably sparse, as they put years of painstaking work into what some consider a needlessly intricate, dying form of animation. They consistently prove that notion false. Three of their first four films (Coraline, ParaNorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings)are dizzying, joyous masterpieces that became instant animated classics not only because of their distinct visual style but also the intimate, complex stories at their core.
Missing Link, the newest film from Laika and ParaNorman director Chris Butler, represents an evolution from what we’ve come to know with the company’s previous works. It’s an ambitious, often jaw-dropping exercise in pushing the limits of stop-motion scale and methodology, filled with sets and details that are bigger and more elaborate than anything they’ve pulled off before. On the other hand, this is a Laika story that’s far more simplistic in its premise, charming and breezy – but noticeably less layered.
Framed almost like a classic adventure serial, the film follows the obsessive and eccentric Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), a self-proclaimed cryptid hunter who is desperate to win the approval of the exploration community. After an attempt to capture footage of the Loch Ness monster goes awry, Frost vows to prove himself once and for all by providing proof of the existence of the mythical Sasquatch. Following a lead from a mysterious letter, he travels to America and discovers the beast (Zach Galifiankis), only to find he’s not at all the monster he expected: the furry behemoth is fully capable of speech, can read, and in fact wrote the letter that brought Frost to him in the first place. The creature, who Frost names Mr. Link, is a lonely soul looking to seek out his Yeti brethren in the Himalayas. Enamored with the idea of earning the acceptance he desires through discovering not only the Sasquatch but an entire of civilization of ancient beings, Frost agrees to help Link find the mythical home of the yetis: Shangri-La.
From there, the film essentially evolves into your standard road trip buddy comedy, with much of the humor coming from the stuffy Frost’s lack of patience with the often bumbling, nervous Mr. Link. It’s a premise noticeably lacking the gutsy originality of other Laika offerings, but that’s not to say the set-up doesn’t have its merits. The road movie concept allows the animators to go wild creating an dazzling array of different sets, from an ocean liner caught in an intense storm to the lush jungles of India. The gorgeous production design and the cinematic eye that Butler has for filming them is nothing if not a triumphant proof of concept that shows just how far stop-motion animation has come since The Nightmare Before Christmas pushed the art form into the mainstream.
Despite the simpler story and the obvious focus on technical craft, there’s still plenty of timely themes to be found in Butler’s script, namely its surprisingly apt condemnations of colonialism and imperialism. Frost’s rival, the tantrum-throwing Lord Piggett-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), is characterized as a damning portrait of the evils of cultural destruction. His violent, jealous attempts to thwart Frost’s discovery, largely through his employment of a ruthless bounty hunter (Timothy Olyphant), represents an intelligent lesson on the stagnation of progress so often posed by men of power. It’s an appropriate and moral route for the film to take, one that reminds you the creators at Laika are fully aware of the ethical responsibility they have when creating films for children and adults alike.
It’s a pity that the whole script wasn’t given the same fine-tooth combing as its anti-imperialist themes, as the film’s major flaws lie in its routine structure, dry humor, and sometimes poor characterization. The story never really goes in a direction you don’t expect it to, merely moving from set-piece to set-piece with the the hopes that the beautiful animation will distract you from the minimal plot. In addition to the animation, the comedic elements are being asked to do a lot of work here and a lot of the jokes don’t land as strongly as intended. Jackman and Galifianakis do some great voice work and their obvious enthusiasm for the material allows for some of the jokes to shine, but largely the breezy humor is simply passable despite so much weight being placed on it. Most egregious is the wasting of Zoe Salanda’s Adelina Fortnight, a fellow adventurer of Frost’s who is steeped deeply in old-fashioned gender politics and exists largely to be rescued by Frost and provide romantic tension.
While all these script failings detract from what could have been another Laika classic, Missing Link is nevertheless an eye-popping little charmer that makes up for its lack of narrative ambition with a beautifully realized world that never fails to fill you with wonder. It may not stand the test of time as a must-see moment in animation history, but it does serve as an important stepping stone for whatever crazy passion project Laika comes up with next.