In an era where the majority of mainstream animation is computer-generated and designed to have broad appeal, Laika has been content to dance to the beat of a far more idiosyncratic drum since it started making stop-motion features ten years ago. That more or less remains the case with Missing Link, their fifth offering overall and a comedy-adventure about an offbeat explorer (Hugh Jackman) and his newfound buddy, a Sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis). Unfortuntely, while it marks their most impressive technical accomplishment yet, the studio’s latest lacks the personality and ambitious storytelling of their previous films. Missing Link is quite the visual feast, but its unremarkable narrative and characters (save for the charming Mr. Link) leave something to be desired.
Jackman lends his voice here to Sir Lionel Frost, an eccentric investigator of monsters and myths who’s determined to gain membership to Victorian-era London’s illustrious Optimates Club. Missing Link is the second recent time the ex-Wolverine actor has played a creative outsider whose obsession with social climbing threatens to be their undoing, following his turn as P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman. In Sir Lionel’s case, that drive comes from a desire to secure his legacy, having long been the black sheep in the eyes of his wealthy family and the unreservedly snooty members of the Optimates Club. Problem is, like Barnum, Sir Lionel is a far less interesting and charismatic protagonist than the characters he befriends (then exploits) for his own self-serving ends, over the course of his rather conventional personal arc.
In this case, that’s a reference to “Mr. Link” (Galifianakis), the eponymous Missing Link between humankind and their primate ancestors. Like a number of Galifianakis’ roles in the past, Mr. Link embodies a more sensitive form of masculinity and is not without his personality quirks, such as his tendency to be extremely literal minded. Overall, though, the character is pretty endearing and is responsible for many of the film’s biggest laughs, thanks to his childlike manner and general lack of self-awareness. At the same time, however, the script by longtime Laika animator-director Chris Butler struggles to present Sir Lionel and Mr. Link (or, as he comes to call himself, Susan) as flip sides of the same coin. Indeed, there’s a bit of a false equivalency drawn here between Sir Lionel’s desire to join the Optimates Club – a group that embodies everything bad about Victorian culture – and Susan’s wish to track down his relatives (the Yetis) in Shangri-La, so he won’t have to be alone anymore.
Missing Link‘s supporting characters are similarly rough in their presentation, beginning with Zoe Saldana as the movie’s female lead, Adelina Fortnight. Essentially the Marion Ravenwood to Sir Lionel’s Indiana Jones, Adelina ends up having little to do other than provide emotional support for Lionel and scoff at the idea that she’s a damsel… while constantly needing to be rescued, over and over. Saldana does perfectly fine voice work in the role all the same, as does Stephen Fry as the Optimates Club’s president and the film’s main villain, Lord Piggot-Dunceb. Missing Link is cheerfully satirical in the way it portrays Piggot-Dunceb and his peers as being comically regressive and conceited in their perspectives and manner, but for the most part the comedy feels pretty toothless. Basically, at this point, mocking Victorian Brits for being chauvinistic colonialists feels like an uninspired way to go about holding up a mirror to the problems in the world today.
Still, there’s no denying that Missing Link might be Laika’s most beautiful-looking film to date (which, after movies like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, is really saying something). Butler and his team of animators here bring settings as varied as smucky Victorian England to the wild Pacific Northwest and the majestic Himalayas to truly visually striking life, using an array of bold hues and intricately-detailed miniature sets. The studio’s stop-motion animation has never been more fluid and expressive either, even as they continue to eschew realism in favor of more stylized character designs and shapes/faces. On the other hand, it’s all the easeir to be frustrated by the film’s underwhelming plotting and character development when you consider how much time, hard-work, and passion was clearly poured into bringing this story to life.
All things considered, though, Missing Link is a perfectly sturdy film bolstered by its lovely animation. While it’s missing the emotional depth and rich themes of the studio’s better offerings, fans will no doubt appreciate Laika’s ongoing commitment to filling their movies with strange characters and equally weird humor (some more adult in nature than others). Those who are interested are encouged to see the film on the big screen, where they can really appreciate the sheer amount of detail that’s been poured into evey nook and cranny of its universe. After all, if the movie’s a success, then we may yet get another ten years of enjoyably oddball features from the studio.
Missing Link begins playing in U.S. theaters on Thursday evening, April 11. It is 95 minutes long and is rated PG for action/peril and some mild rude humor.
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