A decade into their career, one might think they’ve got the general Laika signifiers down pretty well. From Coraline to ParaNorman and Boxtrolls to Kubo and the Two Strings, the passion project of Travis Knight has cultivated a reputation for outstanding works of animated storytelling whose pioneering computer-and 3D-printing-aided design methods allow for truly astonishing detail and fluidity of an effortless-looking nature in the typically effortful stop-motion medium. Their films are proudly epic in scale and ambition even though the focus of their stories and character dynamics are often modest in scope, and they are resolutely committed to faithfully telling their stories in a manner freed from compromise; no wacky sidekicks, no grating needle-drops, no dance party endings, no enforced setpieces (of either the comic or chase variety) every ten minutes to keep the littlest viewers from being bored, and a gleeful embrace of the macabre and grotesque. Despite them both being the pre-eminent producers of stop-motion animation nowadays, you’re not going to mistake Laika for Aardman any time soon, regardless of what lazier critics might claim.
Except maybe you might with Missing Link. The studio’s fifth feature, this time headed up by ParaNorman co-director and Kubo co-writer Chris Butler, eschews a lot of the deliberate ambition and horror idiosyncrasies one typically associates with a Laika work. Even Boxtrolls, the closest antecedent to Link in the studio’s filmography especially given both works involve a character trying to gain admittance to an exclusive club filled with hoity-toity Englishmen, offset its less-immediate ambitions by ramping up the gunk and filth and all the other dirt you’re not typically supposed to leave in animated family films for fear of turning off the little ones (somehow) in a manner designed to ensure it becomes a certain viewer’s new favourite film. Instead, Link really is just an amiable, modest buddy travel movie with no grander ambitions than being an extremely delightful way to spend 90 minutes; the kind of movie whose greatness typically goes unheralded yet you’ll struggle to find anyone with a truly bad word to say about it.
Of course, such sentiments still come with the caveat that this is a stop-motion feature, one still made by Laika, so the effort in terms of construction and animation are still very much on display should one be looking for it. (Another one of the studio’s famous mid-credits time-lapse shots of a scene’s construction turns up and once again caused my jaw to drop.) One-off shots during a travel montage still need massive sets and unique models which won’t be used again, for example. But even still, Missing Link doesn’t stretch for transcendence in any capacity. Its characters are archetypal and you can set your watch to their respective arcs, its humour often genial and understated (although there are still plenty of big laughs peppered about), its tone is sweet and hopeful with sparing flashes of the darkness which often provides a bedrock for other Laika works, and its biggest setpiece is merely a fistfight chase on an almost capsizing boat in the middle of a storm between our hero and villain – and as I typed those words I realised, even with the shadow of Kubo’s own storm-boat fight lurking in the background, it’s actually a super-impressive feat technically and reminiscent of Inception.
Still, even if that restrained ambition means Missing Link only rates higher than the messy Boxtrolls in Laika’s current canon there is something to be said for a modest film which executes its fundamentals in an exemplary fashion. A travelogue adventure of the kind that has largely died out this century, Link follows Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) a self-involved mythical creature hunter with a perennial disregard for his assistants and a crippling desire to be granted acceptance into an exclusive club of stuffy aristocratic self-described “explorers” who want nothing to do with him. His latest gambit is agreeing to a gentleman’s wager in proving the existence of the sasquatch, responding to a letter inviting him to its hiding place in the American Pacific Northwest, only for him to discover the sasquatch itself, dubbed Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis) by Frost, summoned him for its own mission. Lonely and tired of being alternately hunted and labelled a monster, Mr. Link wants Frost to take them to the Himalayas where a secret colony of yetis reside in the hopes they may find acceptance within their own spiritual kind. The journey also picks up Adelina (Zoe Saldana), a widowed Latina aristocrat with whom Frost used to have a relationship, and sees them chased at every turn by Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), a bounty hunter hired by the explorer club’s head (Stephen Fry) to ensure Frost cannot fulfil his terms of the wager.
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To go back to that Aardman comparison from earlier, what Missing Link most reminded me of was a melancholier version of the British institution’s grossly undervalued 2012 The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, particularly in their central themes. Both movies are period-ish pieces set in the twilight days of the British Empire with a villainous and pompous aristocracy who hold prejudiced ideas about British exceptionalism, that myths and cultural traditions held by those outside the Empire’s reach are merely evidence of uncultured savagery which needs to be violently stamped out by a forward-thinking British ruling class who are only truly concerned with their own status preservation. Missing Link’s main villain even has multiple lines disparaging the growing liberation of women and growing civilisation of Western America just to make the point abundantly clear. But Link takes itself and its characters much more seriously than Pirates! ever did – no Flight of the Conchords needle-drops during major emotional montages, for example – so the blistering nature of the takedown, in a manner some may find a touch heavy-handed come the Third Act, doesn’t get lost in the miasma of wacky chase scenes and go-for-broke gags.
Without meaning to disparage Pirates!, that works out to Link’s advantage. The tone may be light but it is extremely sweet and warmly-fuzzy, even trying its best to continue ParaNorman’s casual attitude towards queering the heteronormative animation field with a genuinely affecting beat where Mr. Link decides upon their own name and relays the reason why – not fully successfully, as other more authoritative voices have discussed, but it’s more than many other animation studios are willing to try. The characters may be archetypal with predictable arcs and an obvious turn of events once we reach the hidden yeti colony, but that makes the nuances and slight deviations from the expected stand out and resonate so much more. For example, a lesser work would have treated Adelina merely as third-wheel damsel for Frost to eventually hook up with, but Link never trivialises her grief or minimises the hurt and baggage she and Frost have had in their past with the result being a far more interesting and dramatically rich dynamic between the pair. The humour may be more restrained and genial than one typically expects from an animated comedy (which Link arguably is), but that allows the big gags to breathe, the occasional blunt punchline to register a greater impact, and overall avoids the sensation of beating a viewer over the head with the joke. It’s been over a week since I saw the film as I write this review and I’m still cracking up over “the people we don’t want here are escaping, force them to stay!”
Missing Link is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of movie, effectively. It doesn’t shoot for the moon, it doesn’t aim to pull the rug out in any major capacity, and it therefore is very difficult to write the kind of rave it very much deserves since doing so involves describing the movie pretty much in full and suffixing each sentence with “it’s really good!” To those of us accustomed to Laika’s seemingly boundless ambition, it’s tempting to view Missing Link as a regression, an effort to make something more typically commercial as an offset to their underperformance (and borderline-bombing) financially post-ParaNorman. But such a read is honestly unfair. Sure, Missing Link may not immediately scream or chase excellence, but it’s an extremely sweet and relentlessly charming little feature which executes its more modest aims with the same skill and aplomb that Laika have consistently displayed over the past decade. Not every three-pointer needs to be a flashy display of extravagance.