It feels like a shame at this point, that whenever Laika entertainment puts out a new film, it has to be touted that they’re one of the best animated studios out there. They should be a household name. Held with as much respect and reverence as the mouse house . As well as that other wold famous entity they own. After 4 (5 if counting Corpse Bride) successful and gorgeously crafted films, they deserve as much.Maybe with their latest, Missing Link, that moment of recognition will arrive. For while it may be their weakest effort, it’s still laced with so much heart, care and skill, that it would rank at the top of other studios catalogs.
Things kicks off with a spirited prologue introducing Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), adventurer extraordinaire. Something of an arrogant playboy, Frost is defined almost entirely by three things. He prefers his tea just right. He desperately wants to gain membership to London’s prestigious Optimates Club. And most importantly, he has a knack for hunting down mythological beasts no one else believes exists. The problem with that last piece, is that he consistently befalls some kind of misfortune on every expedition, keeping him from returning with concrete proof of exploits. That is, until the day he receives a letter beckoning him to the west, with the promise of evidence of the elusive Sasquatch. Armed with a reinvigorated spirit, Frost challenges the leader of the Optimates, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) to a bet: if he finds proof of said creature, he’s granted membership. Should he fail though, he’s barred for all eternity.
Upon arrival in the American Northwest, he quickly comes across the discovery he’s longed for. Just one that comes with a few unexpected caveats. Turns out this Sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis), not only can speak perfect English, but he’s summoned Frost for an altogether different adventure. Namely assistance in the search for his long lost cousins, the yetis. Along the way they’re joined by the headstrong Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana). A former love of Frost’s, she’s also the widow of his best friend, a fellow explorer. In her possession is a sacred map, thought to house the location of Shangri-La, where the Yetis supposedly dwell. The trio is tracked on every step of their journey by Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant, clearly having a ball), a sniveling cross between Yosemite Sam and Belloq. Stenk is sent by Piggot-Dunceby, to stop Frost at all cost. Even if it means killing him.
Even though Missing Link is rather straightforward in terms of narrative, it absolutely shines when it comes to spectacle. That is, after all, Laika’s calling card. Here their trademark stop-motion animation is better than ever before. Not just in terms of quality and craft, but also in scope. This is largely a globe-trotting affair, with more locals created than any previous production the studio has tackled before. In the hands of writer & director Chris Butler (Paranorman), scenes are littered with character beats and a sense of discovery that borders on awe-inspiring. The stakes may seem small, but there’s an urgency and vibrancy to the proceedings that keep attention firmly glued to the screen.
Besides the impressive animation on display, Butler injects Missing Link some slightly progressive ideas. None of the additions are earth shattering, but at least give a sense that the team behind the film are aware of changing times. Even while setting their feature in the past. All three leads get a beat that separates them from a litany of other animated heroes. Though Frost seeks admittance into a group mostly comprised of hunters, he lacks a killer’s instinct. Instead interested in the scientific side pertaining to these legendary beings time forgot about. Adelina seeks adventure. Not because it was the field of her former loves, but in hopes of finding out who she really is, on her own. Avoiding the tropes of a damsel in over her head and setting up an explorer every bit Frost’s equal.
The best and smallest bit belongs to that of Mr. Link himself. Originally granted the moniker by Frost, after altering his former valet’s luggage tag, he informs the Sasquatch it’s a silly name to go by in day to day life. He tells his companion to close his eyes and imagine a name that makes him happy. When he replies “Susan” there’s an initial look of confusion upon Frost’s face. When pressed “Susan” explains it’s the name of the first human who ever showed him kindness. After a lifetime of solitude and cruelty, it’s what he associates with hope. Regardless of the perceived gender connotations. Frost sees his friend as he wishes and simply says “it suits you”. The moment might seem infinitesimal, but speaks volumes to the heart at the film’s core.
There’s a a throwback vibe to Missing Link, that feels welcoming, rather than distracting. Hearkening back to the adventure serials of old or their more modern Indiana Jones counterparts, this clearly is a love letter to that genre and its sense of rousing fun. It’s pace is quite quick, as a result. Just when a sequence threatens running too long, it jumps to something else. Humor focuses on slapstick and minor jokes, mostly concerning Susan’s rather literal mindset. It’s a nice change from the regular string of pop culture references other films are saddled with. Here that would feel woefully out of place.
Overall Missing Link is a light and breezy affair. Enjoyable in the moment, with rousing action set-pieces and colorful humor to delight viewers of all ages. While it could easily be labeled as the weakest of Laika’s body of work, it’s still better than most of the other rabble around. Even in this lesser state, maybe this is finally the one that makes people take notice of their efforts. Placing them atop the animation spectrum, where they belong. A film as joyous, beautiful and-smile inducing as this, is more than deserving of that recognition.