Missing Link is Laika’s most ambitious film yet, and that fact is visible in every frame. The stop-motion animation studio’s work has always been impressive — its first film, Coraline, is still stunning a decade later — and yet the studio manages to keep pushing the boundaries. Its latest story covers more ground both literally and figuratively, sending its characters all over the globe, featuring thousands of distinct facial expressions, and touching upon surprisingly sharp themes of colonialism and prejudice.
Laika has managed to survive for this long as a company thanks to its amazing growth, specializing in an art form that has largely been superseded by 3D animation, and movies that are invariably just weird enough not to be considered mainstream. They’re constantly pushing the bounds of the medium (Missing Link takes full advantage of 3D printing for its facial models), matching developments in computer animation frame-for-frame when it comes to bringing dreams to life.
Missing Link is undeniably gorgeous — and also surprisingly bright, substituting cryptids for the ghosts and ghouls that have generally populated Laika’s films. Though Sir Lionel Frost’s (Hugh Jackman) sights are initially set upon the Loch Ness Monster, he makes the trip to the Pacific Northwest when he receives a tip as to the location of another creature: the Bigfoot. The letter’s sender turns out to be the Bigfoot himself (Zach Galifianakis), who has written to Lionel in the hopes that the explorer will help him make contact with yetis, to whom he believes he may be related. After getting over his initial disbelief, Frost dubs him “Mr. Link,” and they’re off to the races.
Though it’s the search for family that anchors the movie — Frost’s purpose in finding Bigfoot is to prove his worthiness and win membership to the (overwhelmingly old, white, and male) “Optimates Club” — writer and director Chris Butler has more on his mind. Though the action may more closely ape the Indiana Jones movies, the film is set in the Victorian era, necessitating a certain reckoning with the imperialist impulses of the time.
That awareness carries throughout the film, particularly with characters like Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), whose adventuring days have been cut short by the death of her husband, and whose past history with Lionel miraculously defies the usual romcom tropes. Then there’s the aptly named Sir Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), the Optimates Club bigwig who boasts about having brought manners to “savages,” while behaving boorishly himself. Further afield is the film’s particular back-story when it comes to the yetis, i.e., that the Bigfoots were so persecuted that they fled to the Himalayas and closed themselves off from the rest of the world.
Granted, it’s ultimately a few too many balls for Missing Link to juggle — there are some pacing hiccups as the characters jump around the globe — but the film is, first and foremost, a visual marvel. As with Laika’s other films, Missing Link features a clip of the animators at work during the end credits, lending a sense of both context and awe to the scale of what they’ve accomplished. The scale of Missing Link is tangible there, not only in the sheer variety of characters (Mr. Link stands head and shoulders above his human compatriots) and landscapes, but in just how much work has gone into the animation.
A few sustained jokes as to Link’s extremely literal interpretations of things (largely idioms) and Lionel’s priggishness lose their shine fairly quickly, but it’s such a joy simply watching these characters move and interact that it hardly matters. The seamless integration (and embrace) of computer graphics when it comes to backgrounds adds both to the scale of the film, and the feeling that Laika is growing past our previous expectations.
Enough love persists for stop-motion animation that it can’t quite be called obsolete, but it’s a rarer and rarer art form (Aardman is the only other stop-motion studio that’s as instantly recognizable). Missing Link makes the case for the form’s continued survival, showcasing just how it’s evolving.
The only question that remains is whether or not the stories the studio tells will grow along with them. As the first Laika film not to star an adolescent hero — and the first to shy away from the more Gothic monsters and mayhem that have characterized their previous works — Missing Link feels consciously more cheerful. It sets up but then shies away from potentially distressing ideas, such as the way the yetis have changed since turning their backs on society. Given the way films like ParaNorman and Coraline have dealt with themes of death and depression, the relative lightness to Missing Link is almost disappointing.
Any image from the film — whether it’s a still or a clip — is impossible to look away from. The level of detail is staggering, from the slight blush in Mr. Link’s cheeks, to the way the sunlight almost filters through Lionel’s nose, to the sheen on individual strands of Adelina’s hair. Though Missing Link isn’t without its flaws, it’s still a compelling piece of work, attempting things on a scale that feels monumental — not only as a next step for Laika’s growth, but for the field of stop-motion animation on the whole.
Missing Link is now in theaters.
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