Reviewed April 12, 2019
With each passing release, stop-motion animation studio Laika has made giant leaps forward in the quality of its artistry and storytelling. Along with stalwart stop-motion houses like Britain’s Aardman Animation, they’re gaining a reputation as the guardians of a beautiful, seemingly endangered art form.
Laika’s latest, Missing Link, continues that tradition. It’s the studio’s most detailed movie yet, achieving a delicate balance of immersive sets and just enough evidence of human interference to remind you that you’re watching something handmade. It also features a charming story that celebrates progressive, creative thinking and acceptance.
What’s It About?
Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) is an intrepid explorer and hunter of mythical beasts who wants nothing more than acceptance into London’s elite Optimates Club. He’s also a self-centered man who pursues his own success with no thought to the consequences for those around him.
One day, Lionel receives a strange letter from someone claiming to be Sasquatch, the creature Lionel believes is the missing link between humankind and our ape ancestors.
He strikes a deal with the club’s pompous leader, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry): If Lionel can successfully bring back evidence of the creature’s existence, he’ll be welcomed into the club.
When Lionel finally meets the creature, voiced by Zach Galifianakis, in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, he’s surprised by what he finds. Mr. Link (or Susan, as he prefers to be called) can speak, and read. He’s lonely, and he wants Lionel to help him locate his distant relatives in the Himalayas.
An international journey ensues as Lionel and Mr. Link evade a hired assassin (Timothy Olyphant) bent on taking them out, and pick up an ally and former flame of Lionel’s, Adelina (Zoe Saldana), along the way.
Missing Link is a lovingly made film, with amazing attention to detail throughout. It also feels like the first Laika film to really relish those details, allowing audiences to fully take in the intricacies of each set, each costume, and each character’s unique face.
Some of the studio’s previous films, while always incredible, can sometimes feel a little too smooth, to the point of being indistinguishable from CGI. Fortunately, Chris Butler, who also directed Laika’s ParaNorman, is heavily invested in making sure the textures feel real.
Fans of miniatures will marvel at the characters’ perfectly woven tweeds, intricate carpet bags, and the tilework on the floor of a villa.
For a children’s film, Missing Link also does impressive work with the visual language of cinema, drawing parallels between characters and making its subtext known through subtle visual hints, and more than a few well-placed puns. It’s a movie that not only looks good, but also feels as though real thought has been put into the story’s construction and themes.
That story zips right along, incorporating Indiana Jones-style adventure and Around the World in 80 Days globetrotting. However, it’s also an inclusive tale about finding a place to belong — which doesn’t always have to mean the people (or creatures) you’re directly related to.
Mr. Link is a sweet, clumsy character whose literalism and lack of knowledge or regard for polite society make him an outcast, but one who’s very easy to fall in love with. Adelina could easily have been turned into a one-dimensional love interest, but is allowed to have her own desires and retain her independence through the movie’s conclusion. Lionel has to learn about the limits of his perspective, and how to be a little more generous in the way he sees the world.
Together, they make a kind of ad hoc family, and learn the importance of self-worth and acceptance.
The movie’s loving eye for detail is admirable, but it sometimes means the action can be a little lacking. Missing Link also has an intellectual streak that some younger audience members may not be able to catch onto. It’s still a wonderful piece of work, but depending on your expectations, your mileage may vary.
Missing Link continues to prove not only Laika’s visual mastery, but also the studio’s commitment to telling emotionally resonant stories.
In a climate where even Pixar, former rulers of family-friendly animation that dazzled the eyes and touched the heart, has been churning out sequels, it’s refreshing to be reminded that original stories still exist. Not only that, but mainstream movies can still be made that spark our imagination and feel like art.