Ah, the early 20th century — when being a “famed seeker of mythical creatures” was still a feasible career option! This is how Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman) plans to distinguish himself among London’s professional explorers, by procuring evidence that prehistoric beasties still walk, crawl, swim and slither among us. Sure, that whole endeavor at Loch Ness didn’t, ah, turn out so well and cost Frost his assistant, but tut tut, that was days ago! Who wants to live in the distant past?
Then a letter arrives informing him that the half-man, half-ape urban legend known as the Bigfoot is very much alive, well and living in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. All Frost has to do is provide proof of the monster’s existence to the Optimates Club, the foremost collective of snooty adventure-seekers dedicated to bringing “good British table manners to savages everywhere,” and then he’ll surely be counted among their ranks, right? Huzzah! So on spindly, stop-motion legs our hero goes, traveling to the woods where this behemoth resides. Upon locating the Sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis) — the explorer calls him Mr. Link, but he prefers “Susan,” it’s a long story — Frost discovers that the surprisingly literate creature was the one who summoned him. The tall, dark and furry outcast has heard tales of creatures living in the Himalayan mountains, what the locals call “yetis.” They’re his relatives, this lost soul believes. Surely, if anyone can help this hairy loneyhearts find his distant kin way out east, it’s Sir Frost.
“The latest movie from Laika” is a phrase that, for most animation fanatics, can bring on copious glee and uncontrollable fits of jazz fingers — in a little over a decade, the Portland, Oregon-based studio has established itself as both a first-rate stop-motion house and a spikier alternative to the Mouse Ears Inc. candy shop. Think of them as Pixar’s mall-goth cousin, all moodiness and wisecracks yet with unexpected glints of sensitivity. And though Laika is only five films (including this one) into what’s hopefully a long creative life, its primary competition is a self-set high bar. There are sequences in Missing Link that are breathtaking in their painstaking virtuosity, like a barroom brawl started by Frost and a gun for hire named Stenk (Timothy Olyphant in Yosemite Sam mode). There are well-timed extended gags, like the theft of a safe owned by Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), the widow of Frost’s late partner and the duo’s eventual traveling companion. And there are some truly astounding action scenes, like a climactic set piece involving an ice axe and several people attached by a rope. You will find yourself preoccupied with the extraordinary quality of the animation, which adds a new sense of seamlessness to the company’s signature handmade, hand-moved elements.
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What you won’t be bowled over by, however, is the storytelling, which makes Missing Link the weakest link in Laika’s chain of movies to date. Yes, Jackman can play pompous, Galifinakis can play guileless and Saldana can play fiery; the voice talent all hit their beats and writer-director Chris Butler occasionally drops in a line or two that zings. (Guards are told to save a defenseless female from a monster when they spot Link carrying Adelina. “Monster?” he asks, confused. “Defenseless?!” she inquires, enraged.) No, the movie isn’t trying to go for the nightmarish down-the-rabbit-hole feeling of Coraline (2009), the oddly tender teen angst of ParaNorman (2012), the Roald-Dahl-meets-steampunk vibe of The Boxtrolls (2014) or the mythic grandeur of the studio’s masterpiece, Kubo and the Two Strings (2016). This is Laika’s bid to be less edgy, lighter and brighter, but adopting a sort droll Aardman-style absurdism doesn’t quite suit what they do best. It makes them feel generic. And it definitely doesn’t add much to what feels like a stillborn tale of old-school colonialism discovering compassion via a well-educated other, especially when things devolve into a “the real journey was the friends we made along the way yadda yadda yadda” type of lesson.
Things do perk up substantially once the trio arrive in the Himalayas, meeting Emma Thompson’s yeti elder with a knack for screwball-level banter and a penchant for saying things like, “Throw them in the Pit of Misery and Perpetual Disappointment!” But by that point, you can feel yourself getting restless and wondering what makes this different from a million other animated films in the post-Pixar Golden Age. It’s still a Laika film, which means it’s still a superior product. But it’s also a movie with a lot of movement but precious little momentum. Something is indeed missing, and it’s not the link between primitive and modern man. More like a spark of inspiration.