Laika’s daring and artistically stop-motion animated movies always feel like well-oiled machines. Its 2016 film, Kubo and the Two Strings, was a beautifully bold cultural tale with great action and mythical storytelling to a degree not commonly seen in bigger-budget films, especially in stop motion. While the newest project, Missing Link, doesn’t quite have that same breath of bold, it’s still a stellar showcase of how well Laika can weave brilliant artistry with real charm.
Consider how this buddy-adventure picture could’ve switched on autopilot for comedy. The tale centers on amateur British explorer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), who’s hoping to find a mythological beast that will put him on the map and earn him acceptance into an explorers club. His rash efforts lead him nowhere until he receives a hot tip about a Bigfoot in Washington. It is there that he meets the hairy beast hiding out in the woods, who turns out to be more of a docile creature than the monster he is feared as in the community. Given that the character is voiced by Zach Galifianakis, one might expect a dangerous dope stumbling around in the human world as a loud, goofy disaster. But while he does bump into chandeliers and break some benches, he seems more like a genuinely well-meaning soul than a walking joke. It helps that a strong part of his personality is his literal nature—he can’t read figures of speech, making him more adorable than annoying.
Lionel is motivated enough by his own egotistical efforts that he’s willing to escort “Mr. Link” to his new home on the other side of the globe. On his journey, he’ll run into a number of characters who push different worldviews. The explorer club already looks down on Lionel, but he’s especially spat upon by the evil Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), who’s hellbent on ensuring the old ways stay the same. An unlikely ally is found in the widow and old flame Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), who’s trying to prove how ready she is to take her adventuring to solo status. There is also a discriminating Yeti (Emma Thompson) who also harbors a closed nature and discrimination of the rest of the world she fears will not change for the better.
These character types may make the film sound like a deeper tale of evolution and changing times, but their blunter natures serve as the more serviceable layer to the film’s stronger buddy-adventure essence. The themes are easily digestible for a younger audience, and that’s perhaps more important than subtlety. But thankfully, the film never goes full PSA—it does a great job placing the messages while still being an amusing adventure between man and beast. The duo have a genuine charm in how they play off one another, never coming off as too dumb or egotistical despite their character flaws.
Of course, Laika hasn’t skimped on its stop-motion style, and the film goes for some audacious sequences. Numerous scenes on trains, jungle trails, and kingdoms of ice are stunning sights so amazing in their assembly that one particular shot becomes the highlight of Laika’s trademark how-it-was-made midcredit Easter egg. The same level of cunning is present in barroom brawls, chases aboard a boat, and a thrilling struggle for dear life on a crumbling cliff. It’s fun without the freneticism that usually comes packaged with these fast and funny animated adventures.
Laika has once again displayed the refreshing style that’s all its own. Missing Link has the same gentle nature as that of Wallace and Gromit’s Aardman Animations but with a keener sense of wit and action. One commonality I’ve noticed among all the studio’s films is how each has its own technique that transports us out of time, be it to Victorian Cheesebridge (The Boxtrolls) or feudal Japan (Kubo and the Two Strings). Missing Link continues the tradition of rich, imaginative, and original animation that is always a warm and welcome addition to the theater.