When it comes to the genre of stop-motion animation, there are few studios that stand out as towering titans of said squishy, doughy industry. There’s the popular claymation studio of Aardman, whose portfolio includes delightful romps the likes of Chicken Run, Shaun the Sheep and of course the dynamic duo of Wallace and Gromit. Then there’s the uber-indie studio of Indian Paintbrush, otherwise known as Wes Anderson’s Playdough room, the studio has been responsible for quirky and sardonic pieces like The Fantastic Mr Fox and most recently, Isle of Dogs.
Then, there’s Laika, a personal favourite of mine that has consistently set the standard for what stop-motion can accomplish. I first fell in love with Laika way back in 2009, when Coraline came out, a deliciously creepy child horror film. Yes, it can be done! Then there was their crowning achievement of Kubo and the Two Strings in 2016, a film that was the perfect balance of melancholy, mature themes, magnificent design and direction.
To me, they had crafted a masterpiece. Needless to say, the bar has been raised. So when I heard Laika’s latest film Missing Link would be hitting theatres, I was incredibly excited to see what they had in store. Does it meet the high standards of the studio’s body of work? Well, yes and no!
The first thing you’ll notice about Missing Link if you are acquainted with Laika’s work in the past is its noticeably brighter and sanguine tone, in comparison to its grimmer and creepier siblings. The film is almost reminiscent of an Indiana Jones flick, full of globetrotting voyages and colourful characters popping in and out. Right from the get-go, the film is set on styling itself as an adventure film with the dashing and driven Sir Lionel Frost wrangling the Loch Ness Monster, giving little to no care for the well-being of his partner Mr Lint as he struggles to grab a photo.
Most of Laika’s films follow a clear thread of family and Missing Link is no exception with Frost, who is given a charismatic performance by Hugh Jackman, looking to join an adventurer’s club only to be rejected for his brave, bold new ideas. When he receives a mysterious letter, Lionel is set on an adventure to find the eponymous missing link or Sasquatch. Along the way, crazy hijinks ensue and an ex-lover, Adelina is brought into the fray. He soon finds himself being the head of a usual family.
Missing Link occupies a strange space in popular culture as a parable for naturalism and natural conservation, akin to a secular Veggie Tales if you will. I say parable because of the film’s painfully transparent nature on its themes. The adversary against Lionel and his beliefs in things greater than men is the arrogant and ignorant Lord Piggot-Dunceby.
Piggot spends a good majority of his screen time expounding human civilization and virtues of British imperialism (I’m surprised religion was not thrown into the mix). Ironically, he’s played by liberal comedian and naturalist Stephen Fry. The film comes off at times as little too self-indulging and preachy in its message. I’m all for social commentary in films but there are ways to conceal them in clever allegories, which Missing Link is severely lacking.
While the premise isn’t altogether original, our trio of heroes Lionel, Adelina and the Sasquatch Susan (no you’re not wrong, he is a male) make up for it with a mostly charming script with a good number of chuckle-worthy lines. In fact, some of the funniest moments in the film are from Susan’s literalistic take on the English language and Lionel doing his best to explain.
And while there are plenty of wholly laughable scenes, the humour in the film is not without problems. For one, Missing Link dances around some pretty risque humour that even I couldn’t help but count it as jarring, particularly an odd prison rape bit.
Furthermore, Zach Galifianakis’ Susan as the oafish assistant to Lionel does wear its appeal after a while. A few bits of physical comedy punctuating with his linguistic literalism were funny but eventually, it feels all too predictable, which is a slight disappointment. Most of the heart and fiery repartee in the film stems from Zoe Saldana as Adelina who has something of a complicated history with Lionel. We do get some of the truly gut-busting moments from Lord Piggot- Dunceby like when he spouts about how civilized he is before suggesting in the same sentence that they hire a thug to kill Frost. The film heavily relies on dialogue to carry the laughs, not unlike Aardman animated films.
Alright, so the quality of the dialogue and plot is up for debate but one thing that cannot be denied is the stunning animation on display here. The character models are noticeably more paper-ish in texture and quality, which lends a unique aesthetic that allows Missing Link to distinguish itself from its more CGI heavy competition. The film has reportedly developed over 110 sets with 65 different locations! Trust me when I say that it shows, no single location is ever the same from the lush greenery of forest to the dusty streets of the American Frontier to the frozen majesty of Shangri-La. There’s no shortage of beauty to behold in Missing Link.
Missing Link is one of Laika’s most ambitious film projects with great performances by its principal cast and a ton love placed in its technical department. Is it worthy to be placed in the studio’s hallowed halls? I’d say no. For all of the film’s splendour, it’s a shame that the script leans back on tired tropes and disjointed jokes with predictable plot threads to tell a frankly passe story.
I know it’s about the journey, not the destination but I can’t help but wish the film had extended its more experimental vision to the story department as well. All in all, Missing Link has the makings of a truly great film but I guess we’ll have to settle for an above average animated adventure instead.
Missing Link is currently out in Malaysian cinemas.