Director: Chris Butler
Screenplay: Chris Butler
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, David Walliams, Timothy Olyphant, Matt Lucas, Amrita Acharia, Zach Galifianakis
Runtime: 95 Minutes
It should probably be said right off the bat that Missing Link, the new stop-motion animated film from Laika is a good film. That should be a given due to the track record of the studio so far, but the talent brought to the screen through their technical craft is so good that its easy to forget how difficult and time-consuming it must be to produce something like this on such a scale, and that you kind of forget that fact while watching ends up working in the film’s favour because of the strength of it’s engaging performances and storytelling.
Where exactly it ends up fitting in their roster in terms of overall quality isn’t really important, although it feels like a much more modest film than their previous action fantasy epic Kubo and the Two Strings. But it’s probably their first step into more conventional ground, with less overt strangeness to its visuals, designs and reference points but swinging further toward outright comedy than any of their films have before.
Said story involves adventurer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) setting off to the Pacific Northwest to prove the existence of the legendary Sasquatch, in an effort to gain acceptance by his small-minded explorer peers into an exclusive members club back home. Upon discovering the creature who he comes to call Mr Link (Zach Galifianakis), he finds that he is capable of speech and actually wants to be transported across the world to the Himalayas to be united with his other Yeti brethren.
It’s a very simple and unique setup, but one that the film doggedly sticks too without much distraction, while along the way introducing Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), a free-spirit adventurer, and trying to escape the clutches of bounty hunter Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant) and Stephen Fry as rival Lord Piggot-Dunceby.
Although the story is simple enough to follow, what’s surprising is some of the themes it ends up using as a means to weave in social commentary. Specifically, toward the reductionist and unevolved mindset of imperialist Britain during this period. Villain Lord Piggot-Dunceby and his kind are all aging white men, holding up the past victories of the empire and facing the fear of discovery of anything more than man, or anything beyond their knowledge, as a threat to their very way of life and the sustained luxuries and power structure that it has afforded them for generations.
It’s all very plain and unsubtle in its presentation of this being the core foundation of their villainous attitudes, but the fact that it’s there is welcoming and easy to hiss at none the less. If there’s a weakness, then it’s in the form of secondary villain Stenk who is entertainingly designed and played, but is almost too incompetent at what he is doing in every confrontation to bring the film or its main characters any sustained threat.
There’s also its presentations that feel progressive without sticking their chin out. From the native tongue of the Himalayan tribes (with a role played encouragingly by Amrita Acharia, a British actress of Nepalese–Ukrainian origins), and Mr. Link’s chosen name of Susan based of a clever trick of narrative assumption, to Adelina Fortnight’s unfurling into agency without resorting to cheap subversions of action heroine tropes – and this all comes before the third act’s presentation of an enlightened Yeti culture who are quick to dismiss Susan as a dim-witted “redneck” who has spent too long assimilating into a culture that is not his own.
As far is its execution goes, the animation is as seamlessly beautiful as ever before, working with a much brighter colour pallet than Laika’s previous films, and the returning talent of writer/director Chris Butler of the great ParaNorman brings much levity to proceedings. It’s a very light and jaunty tale told well with a game cast of vocal performances.
Jackman is clearly having fun twisting the “stiff upper lip” Frost into something more compelling and humorous. Galifianakis is always fun in these schlubby yet heartfelt comedy roles. Saldana, Fry and Olyphant all put in good work, and there’s a late in the day minor scene-stealer in Emma Thompson as the Yeti Elder.
Missing Link is everything you would expect from a Laika film at this point, as the more dramatically composed and stylistically stranger cousins to the beloved British Aardman. It’s funny, engaging, well told and performed, technically astonishing and agreeably entertaining for everyone. Even if it doesn’t quite match the dramatic or emotional potency of their other films, this globetrotting comedy adventure sets its sights on its ambitions and modestly accomplishes them.