Missing Link Review
Missing Link (2019) | Dir. Chris Butler | Cast: Emma Thompson, hugh jackman, Timothy Olyphant, Zoe Saldana | Writer: Chris Butler
Photorealistic landscapes and high octane action sequences are difficult enough to animate in CGI assisted animation, but it takes a mad genius to be able to dream of bringing these to life in stop motion. Studio Laika’s latest, Missing Link, may be their most conventional (and undoubtedly their most accessible) film to date, but when it comes to the animation itself, there’s no denying that they’re breaking new ground - and making the painstaking process of crafting stop motion world building on this scale look effortless.
Fans of Laika’s more horror inflected back catalogue (most notably Paranorman, the previous film from Missing Link director Chris Butler) may be dismayed by the lack of the ghoulish and the gothic here, but they haven’t toned down their adventurousness in a field dominated by lowest common denominator family entertainment. Even at their most conventional from a storytelling perspective, they remain a cut above every other animation house in the business; it has the same life lessons as your run of the mill Disney film, but with a playfulness and emotional intellect not witnessed since Pixar’s mid 2000’s run. It may be the studio’s first film to feel familiar when it comes to narrative, and yet it still feels like a breath of fresh air in the current climate to see a mainstream animation that doesn’t belittle the intelligence of its young audience, in the process finding a renewed earnestness to morals as old as storytelling itself. Paired with the practical risks of animating various gravity defying sequences, it feels just as irresistible as the more oddball efforts the studio has produced.
Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) is an English explorer aiming to discover the world’s most mysterious creatures, even if it means endangering those who assist him on the journey; we’re introduced to him nearly causing a fellow explorer to get eaten by Nessie, such is his carelessness to anything that isn’t securing proof of his findings. He wants to get accepted by a prestigious society of explorers who have considerable disdain for him, which turns into anger when they discover he may have found proof of Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest. Upon arrival, he discovers that the creature can talk, and actually wrote the letter asking him to visit; Mr Link, as the creature (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) gets named, is lonely and needs human help to get him over to the Himalayas, where his distant relatives the Yetis live. The only problem? The British explorers have set bandit Stenk (Timothy Olyphant) on their trail to capture Mr Link, so the pair enlist the help of Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana) in order to make the cross continental journey safely. It does not go smoothly.
Only a studio as off-kilter as Laika could make a film easily summarised as “The Lost City of Z for kids” their most mainstream friendly effort to date. If the story itself has themes no deeper than the power of friendship and respecting those different from us (a moral made clear in the film’s only misstep, an original end credits song that sounds like bargain basement “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”), older audiences will be pleased to find a deeper satirical bite around the margins, not too dissimilar to James Gray’s 2017 film. Sir Lionel Frost is belittled by the prestigious club he wishes to be a part of due to his respectful approach to discovering previously uncharted people and communities - and although deeply scathing, nothing in Gray’s film was quite as savage a critique of colonisation as a throwaway line about how explorers aim to find “savages” and “teach them English table manners”.
Laika make period pieces without throwing in lazy pop culture references that would date them, and yet still touch on commonly recognisable cultural touchstones for deserved laughs. Arriving in the Himalayas, Sir Lionel channels the average Brit abroad by expecting everybody in a foreign country to be able to speak his language. A lesser critic might to attribute this to the elevated sense of self many Brits had following Brexit, but this pomposity has unfortunately always been inherent in our national character - and what’s particularly scary is that this gentle lampooning of our ignorance to the wider world is barely heightened for laughs. This commentary on the self importance of our higher classes through the ages is deeply embedded into the globe trotting adventure, but the sharpness doesn’t make the central odd couple relationship any less charming.
For Laika fans, any concerns about their change in storytelling direction will be dwarfed by the ambitious scale of their stop motion craft. Their previous effort, Kubo and the Two Strings, got an unlikely Academy Award nomination for visual effects, and it feels like they’ve pulled out all the stops to top their previous work; as expected, the landscapes are beautiful (building up to a gorgeous hidden utopia in the Himalayas), but more impressively, they’ve designed flabbergastingly kinetic action sequences from scratch. One highlight, a chase/fight sequence on a boat in stormy waters, ends up channelling Inception’s hallway fight, the set constantly shifting between sharp angles and portrayed with a clarity many action filmmakers should take note of. But then again, it’s one thing to film an action sequence - to painstakingly map out every single detail by hand, with complicated contortions of the movements of each figure and the constantly shifting angles of the set around them, is a feat so stunningly complicated I remain in awe of how they managed to seamlessly pull it off.
If there is a flaw, it’s that Mr Link (or Susan, as he demands to be called) suffers from weak characterisation and dialogue. When his literal mindedness is played for laughs, Galifianakis breathes life into the eight foot tall creature - but elsewhere, the screenplay hands him the laziest laugh lines, coupled with pauses for laughter where the silence in my audience proved deafening. He’s like one of the comedian’s anti-comedy characters, for example his lead character in his surrealist mumblecore sitcom Baskets, but where the awkward approach to telling jokes is played with full sincerity. We’re supposed to find him endearing, but he frequently comes close to being insufferable.