Stop-motion as an art form acts as its own auteur when pulled off with as much class as Laika Studios. From Coraline to Kubo & the Two Strings, it’s difficult to fault the craftsmanship of their work. The sheer dedication and skill required to create such physical worlds and characters on screen and fill them with such character is astounding, and it usually leaves jaws firmly-placed on the ground whenever I rewatch one of their time-lapse sequences from the behind the scenes productions on their features.
Missing Link is the first of Laika’s films under new distribution; after the disappointing box-office of their previous work I can only assume the team’s intention was to try their hands at a broader story with a more commercially-friendly tone. Thus, Chris Butler (writer of Kubo and writer/director of the brilliant Paranorman) instead presents the audience with an exceedingly-traditional globe-trotting buddy comedy centered around Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), a self-involved and upper-class myth and monster investigator desperate to break into the academic society of ‘great men’ in the days of the Industrial Revolution. After perchance finally meeting the elusive sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis), he’s finally able to prove his worth to the society by offering undoubtable proof of the creature’s existence… as long as he helps ‘Mr. Link’ (as in ‘Missing Link’) travel to the Himalayas in order to be surrounded by his cousins – the Yeti.
The film’s opening perfectly captures the tone of the rest of the adventure too, as Lionel and his previous valet encounter the daunting Loch Ness Monster amidst a pastel sky and gorgeous wide-shot landscapes. I admit being worried going into the film that the studio’s lack of box-office success would lead to them having to find shortcuts in regard to their work, but I’m more than happy to report that is not the case. Missing Link is their strongest and most genuinely beautiful work to date. They’ve clearly mastered the art of fluid character movement from previous years, and instead seem to show off their newfound talent for deep, gorgeous environments here by lavishing us with location after location. There’s dense rainforests, grey concrete-laden cobbled streets, dizzying mountaintops and lush green forests that serve as the most nutritious of eye-candy.
That’s part of the benefit with the broader story too: Laika’s previous works have often been darker, internal affairs and whilst Missing Link lacks the emotional resonance of their previous work, it’s not hard to argue with a lighter affair such as this – especially when the cast are game too. Jackman is delightfully sturdy and difficult as the stubborn and single-minded Sir Frost, who’s every bit as sharp as his character’s protruding nose. Zoe Saldana feels a little shortchanged in comparison as Adelina Fortnight, a conscientious adventurer and Frost’s former girlfriend. Though she’s continuously fighting against the masculine world the film depicts there are several moments where her character seems to waver from her own rules in order to supply generic moments of forced romance into the story. The supporting cast feel the same too. Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas and Timothy Olyphant all seem to be having fun in their roles as antagonists and members of the ‘great men’ society, but they’re paper-thin caricatures of archetypal nondescript ‘wealthy businessman’ types. They sneer and plot behind the scenes in London, prompting fleeting moments of intrigue that are easily dispatched as the central trio continue their adventure round the globe.
Galifianakis has the meatiest role however as the titular Mr. Link (or ‘Susan’ as he wishes to be called). Altruistic and uncommonly sweet-natured, his sasquatch is a marvel of both comedic timing and fluent stop-motion work. Every hair across his body blows in the wind, and his soft spoken voice is often the punchline of many jokes throughout the screenplay by Butler. Many of which are well-suited to a younger audience with a reliance on slapstick and farce, though that isn’t to say the film is without moments of comedic inspiration. Emma Thompson too has a brilliant cameo towards the film’s third act as the leader of the Yeti, though the film doesn’t quite make as much use of her as I’d like.
Missing Link often feels most like Laika’s previous work with The Boxtrolls, in which its undeniable craft and charm seem to battle the lackluster story. It lacks the subtext and emotional draw that made their previous films so rich and welcome to repeat viewings, and whilst it does have an important message about the sense of belonging and isolation it’s only skin-deep – which is sadly where the film is at its most powerful. Butler managed to flip Paranorman on its head by presenting the audience with a straightforward zombie comedy, only to transform it into a haunting depiction of death and family relationships. His latest sasquatch comedy offers hints of something more.
There’s a deep feeling that if allowed to break free of convention Butler would have rejoiced at crafting a full-scale action adventure with deliriously-radical set-pieces and an Indiana Jones-vibe to it. The second act of Missing Link in particular has a set piece onboard a cruise ship that reeks of excitement and showcases peerless talent in direction as increasingly-impossible waves send the gravitational pull of the shipmates into an Inception-style frenzy during a shootout. Moments like this are instead bookended between gorgeous wide visuals that feel distressingly ‘family friendly’ for the studio responsible for Coraline.
Missing Link is an odd misstep in storytelling for Laika, but a triumphant achievement in skill. Its easygoing nature and broad script require little imagination, but are harmless enough to provide an ongoing smile throughout its runtime thanks to some strong performances and well-placed humour. Instead though, it’s heartily recommended you go see the film for the merits of the craft itself. In a film landscape that seems intent on killing off the viability of stop-motion as a future source of entertainment, audiences are needed to produce future exciting stories. If you have even an inkling of an interest in the art of stop-motion, it’s recommended you check out the work by Laika’s design team and think of the story as just context to the visuals on screen.