At The Movies - Missing Link Is A Delightful Adventure

By Jordan Bosch

I’m going to make the controversial statement and declare that Laika is the greatest animation studio in America today.

As wonderful as Disney Feature Animation and Pixar are, only Laika is experimenting in stylized expression, artistry, and original storytelling on a level comparable to the likes of Studio Ghibli and Cartoon Saloon. CoralineParaNorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings are modern classics of the art form (The Boxtrolls is pretty good too), each advancing the technique of stop-motion animation to new levels.

And it’s wonderful that their latest feature Missing Link, written and directed by ParaNorman’s Christ Butler, continues this tradition of high quality animation and storytelling, while also signalling a promising new direction for the studio.

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An English explorer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) is desperate to join a society of great adventurers, and when he receives a letter claiming proof of a sasquatch he sees an opportunity to cement his reputation. In the American Pacific Northwest, he finds the sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis) determining him to be the fabled Missing Link; however “Mr. Link”can not only speak perfect English but had sent the letter himself to recruit Frost to help him find the Yetis, who he believes to be his people.

Accompanied by an old flame Adelina (Zoe Saldana) and pursued by Frost’s rival Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) and a bounty hunter Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), they embark on a globe-spanning adventure to the Himalayas and the hidden Yeti utopia of Shangri-La.

I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see a classic adventure movie again. And this film takes its inspiration from the iconic stories of the genre like Lost Horizon and Around the World in Eighty Days, bringing with those influences the grand sense of scale and imagination such literary precursors perfected to best entice their audiences.

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It’s remarkably easy to be swept up in the journey as the filmmakers go to great lengths to fill out the world and give each setting a character and beauty all its own. Meticulousness has always been a staple of Laika’s and the animation on this film is no different. It’s intricately detailed, uniquely stylized, elegant, and sharp, the character designs are rich and fresh, the action scenes vivacious, wild, and creative. Awesome craftsmanship is constantly on display and it’s an utter delight to watch in any given moment.

And the animation really befits the fun of the movie too.

Some of the jokes that were emphasized in the trailer aren’t all that good, but the film’s humour is overall pretty effective; it knows the language of visual comedy better than a lot of animated films I’ve seen recently, and its light-hearted nature is instantaneously endearing.

While there is some drama and genuine stakes, this is not Kubo and the Two Strings -in fact it’s the first Laika movie not to really feature much of a dark undercurrent to its story or any frightful imagery, which is ironic considering it’s also Laika’s first film without a child protagonist.

Instead we have Frost and Mr. Link (or Susan as he eventually names himself) who have an interesting dynamic. Frost has probably the most clichéd character arc, as the self-serving monster hunter who needs to learn empathy, but to the films’ credit, he’s still made relatable and mildly understandable in this. Susan meanwhile, kind-natured, polite, and idealistic (and with a Drax-like inability to comprehend metaphors), is both a terrific foil and a sympathetic tether in his quest for a place of belonging -the films’ most important theme and ergo the double meaning of its title. Together they’re a likeable team, and well-written enough to avoid the story traps of deception or hostility towards each other.

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Missing Link is the second time Hugh Jackman has voiced a stuffy British character in an animated movie, but it can’t be denied he’s good at it. Galifianakis, who often teeters on the brink of likeable and annoying, is quite charming, and Zoe Saldana is a nice enough fit for Adelina that she adequately distracts you from the fact her character is slightly underdeveloped. It’s always a treat to see Stephen Fry in a movie, and here he really gets to have fun playing an over-the-top snob with the same gusto he brought to Blackadder and A Bit of Fry & Laurie. The film also features his old Cambridge colleague Emma Thompson, as well as David Walliams and Matt Lucas.

There’s a lot in this movie that reminds me of the stuff I love best in films like Frank Capra’s Lost HorizonThe Great RaceThe Lost City of ZThe Road to El Dorado, and Raiders of the Lost Ark -and if you like any of those movies, chances are you’ll like this one. That isn’t a sign of derivativeness; indeed one of Missing Link’s finest attributes is how it draws from multiple sources to produce something entirely unique and independently entertaining. In a few regards it’s actually fairly subversive.

This movie is unlike any other animated film that will come out this year -certainly at this level of North American distribution. It engrosses you in a way that few other animated films do, and without being part of a franchise or large world-dominating conglomerate.

Kubo’s director and Laika C.E.O. Travis Knight indicated in the wake of that film that the studio was headed in a new direction, one that’s more experimental and versatile -and this coming after a string of movies that I felt were already just that.

But Missing Link is certainly unlike anything they’ve made yet and it’s got me incredibly excited to see what’s in store for the future. These movies tragically may not be drawing in the audiences they deserve, but they will certainly stand the test of time as pinnacles of the stop-motion format and artistic gems of a calibre all their own.

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