The Pitch: Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) knows that the Sasquatch exists, and he’s going to prove it. Sure, his last few adventures haven’t exactly gone according to plan; Missing Link opens on Frost’s close encounter with the Loch Ness Monster, which ends in his photographic evidence being destroyed. The stuffy adventurer’s club that Frost desperately seeks admission into (and acceptance from) scoffs at his proposals, with overseer Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) more concerned with charting the exploits of those who “brought good table manners to savages the world over.” After all, in a time where fads like electricity and suffrage are taking over, the Lord Piggot-Duncebys of the world have spots to keep.
But when Frost receives a letter from somebody in the Pacific Northwest, who’s not only seen a Sasquatch but identifies where Frost can as well, the roguish adventurer takes off for the developing United States in hopes of cementing his claim as an adventurer for all time. It won’t be easy, however. Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), Frost’s ex-lover and the widow of a former compatriot, refuses to let Frost use a map left to her without her being involved. Piggot-Dunceby hires Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant) to kill both Frost and the Sasquatch before he can provide proof. And that’s all before Frost actually meets the Missing Link (Zach Galifianakis), and realizes that the Link is less of an elusive monster and more of an amiable, hyper-literal goofball who yearns to live among his own kind.
Our Mother Should’ve Just Named You Laika: Ever since Coraline was released ten years ago, Laika has continued to distinguish itself as one of the finest and most compelling animation studios working today. It’s not just that their brand of meticulous stop-motion animation is stunning, although it certainly is. It’s that Laika, better than arguably any other major animation outfit, understands that the magic of animation is only as valuable as the stories told within the medium.
The tactile quality of Laika’s designs has always belied the ways in which the studio’s films have negotiated the kind of complex subject matter that even many talented live-action filmmakers would be reticent to touch. Coraline brings childhood fears of parental abandonment and permanent loneliness to vivid, unusually frightening life. Paranorman negotiates the complex dynamics of a young woman who found herself the victim of cultural ignorance, and returned in vengeance to become the exact kind of thing she feared most. Kubo and the Two Strings, their last effort, juxtaposes its unabashed love for storytelling and traditions with life-or-death peril, introducing an animated world in which people die and lose appendages and these things are an unavoidable part of life.
While Missing Link is brighter than much of Laika’s output to date, in both its thematic and visual respects, writer/director Chris Butler still manages to touch on racism, misogyny, and broader notions of discrimination, in ways plain-spoken enough to connect with young children and poignant enough to move the adults accompanying them. It’s also an incredibly charming and often funny film (more on that shortly), but it’s yet more proof that Laika is doing one of the most admirable things a producer of family films can do: take a film primarily aimed at children as seriously as possible.
Squatch the Throne: If Missing Link feels a few shades gentler than some of Laika’s previous output, it’s certainly no less inventive. In keeping with the old-adventure style and Butler’s regular use of cartographer’s drafts for shot transitions, the human character designs are elegant, oblong bodies drawn from the clean arcs and sharp lines of a mapmaker’s work. Frost’s office is a marvel of miniature set design, a piled assemblage of adventurer’s scores that seems to be drawing the eye in every possible direction at once. Through dusty boom towns, lush forests, and icy peaks, Missing Link achieves some stunning vistas by way of little more than creative photography and impeccably designed sets and characters.
Thinking Bigfoot: That rambling sense of adventure carries over to the film’s pacing, appropriately breathless in its sprint toward Shangri-La, the purported home of the Sasquatch’s Yeti cousins. Missing Link makes for an exceptionally quick 95 minutes, and much of its runtime is filled with the simpler pleasures of well-written comic patter. While Butler’s screenplay leans on kid-friendlier material at times (Link goes boom, Link eats poop while mistaking it for a cookie, et al), at others the film’s fish-out-of-water premise allows Galifianakis, Jackman, and Saldana to volley quips, comebacks, and even the odd entendre at one another, with the abandon of a good screwball comedy. Even when the film gets around to imparting its lessons about self-worth and found families, Missing Link never turns entirely saccharine, and it’s the adept voice work that maintains the balance.
The Verdict: Missing Link is a pleasant family movie built from surprising multitudes. Mr. Link (or Susan, eventually) isn’t a reclusive monster; he’s a scared creature desperate to find a sense of place, who hates being reminded of his uncommon nature. Frost is a blowhard and a cad, but he’s also a lonely man desperate to define himself by the standards of Great Men. Adelina is introduced as a widow in a mansion, but winds up serving as the moral heart of the expedition, even when the intentions of those around her shift and change by the minute, her defiance sustaining everybody around her. As with so many Laika films, you’ll come for the breathtaking animation, and you’ll leave both enchanted and surprised by the big, beating heart beneath it.
Also, you’ll leave stunned by the animation. The animation is remarkable. This cannot be overemphasized.
Where’s It Playing? Wide release. Please go support what Laika does, with your money and in a theater, for once. Please?