Laika is back, and nothing makes me happier. More than any other American-based family animation studio, and yes, I’m including Disney and Pixar, there is a level of maturity and sophistication to everything Laika has done so far in their 11 year history that is absolutely incomparable. They pull no punches with their audiences, introducing gorgeously mature universal themes to kids in such a brilliant manner that most mainstream studios are afraid to confront (Paranorman and Kubo and the Two Strings being my standout favorites). And the medium in which they’ve chosen to tell their stories, as well as the back-breaking levels of effort they put into the hand-crafted stop-motion technique of each film is gorgeous, unique, and so very rare in this industry nowadays. It’s done not just to entertain, but as pure works of art as well. And I’m pleased to say they mostly do it again with Missing Link, albeit to a bit of a lesser degree than their last film (though it really is hard to top Kubo).
Missing Link is probably Laika’s most kid-friendly film to-date. You don’t achieve the levels of mature darkness that you’d otherwise see in films like Coraline, Paranorman, or Kubo. But the charm is still there. If I had to make an analogy, Missing Link is to Laika, as Ponyo is to Miyazaki. The themes explored in the film are reasonably safer than most that they usually explore (for instance, director of Link, Chris Butler’s previous effort, Paranorman explored the negative effects of bullying on individuals using the Salem witch trials as a metaphor). However, those themes are no less important, and are done in a much lighter, more comedic way than their previous efforts. The result is something more akin to an Aardman film (another brilliant studio who employs stop-motion to bring to life characters like Shaun the Sheep or Wallace and Gromit) than your typical Laika film.
Missing Link tells the tale of Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), an adventurer who goes on expeditions to uncover evidence of the existence of mythical creatures in desperate hopes of joining an exclusive, pretentious explorer’s club. After receiving a letter from an anonymous source about a potential mission to find the legendary Sasquatch, Lionel makes a bet with the club’s head (Stephen Fry) to uncover concrete evidence about the Sasquatch’s existence in exchange for admittance into the club. Upon setting off on his journey, Frost finds the letter was actually sent by the Sasquatch himself, who Frost calls Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis), and that Link’s letter is actually a plea asking for Frost to help reunite him with the last remaining family he has in the world: The Yetis of Shangri La. Link and Frost make a deal to help one another out, and what commences is an adventure that takes them all over the world, and reunites Frost with his former girlfriend/his best friend’s former wife, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), thus forming an unlikely friendship between all 3 characters. Along the way they have to stay one step ahead of a dangerous hunter (Timothy Olyphant), who has been employed by the club to ensure no evidence of the Sasquatch can be uncovered.
The movie is pleasant and quite funny, in the offbeat, witty, clever ways Laika is known for. Galifianakis has probably some of the best laughs in the movie, and his simple, literal-minded Mr. Link character is charming, sympathetic and never annoying. Saldana’s Adalina Fortnight character is absolutely wonderful, spunky, and heartfelt, and Jackman is his usual charismatic, funny, charming self as Frost. The three characters have excellent chemistry, and you do like their characters, though it does feel forced at times. To explain, while chemistry between, say, Norman and Neil in Paranorman felt organic and realistic, you can kind of see they’re pivoting to a standard “adventure movie serial” template to establish the chemistry between these characters. And it somewhat feels as if they’re trying a bit too hard to get you to like them or to build sympathy for them, to the point where it’s a bit unsubtle and less genuine than what you know they’re capable of. I’ll give you an example—as soon as you meet Mr. Link, he literally explains his loneliness and desires to find others like him to the audience as he’s explaining things to Frost. And I suppose we’re meant to sympathize with him simply because he tells us his deal. And we do, but it’s a bit unearned. That said, it’s not unsuccessful, because you still like and connect with all of the characters by the end because the writing and performances are charming, even if the intent is moderately transparent. We probably don’t adore them the way we adored Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle, or Coraline Jones, but we still like them all the same because they are funny and decently fleshed out characters. The flaw is that they have to tell us they are rather than allow us to sympathize with each character naturally, which Laika is ordinarily very good about.
The themes of the movie are also not as deep or heavy as in Laika’s previous movies, but they are still pretty universal. At its core, the movie is about ensuring one’s personal sense of self worth is not defined by the approval of others. That’s something that’s paralleled between Mr. Link and Sir Frost’s journeys together, and ultimately what connects them as friends. It’s also an important message for young ones to learn today, and in typical Laika fashion, it’s not shoehorned in, or crammed down our throats. It’s understandable and relatable, and is one of the reasons why we do ultimately connect with Link and Frost. It also feeds into a very nicely sharp commentary on societal flaws regarding exclusion and the injustice in caste systems within our world. But as heavy as that sounds, as previously stated, it’s presented in a lighter way than most of the movies in the Laika library.
The animation, as always, is gorgeous—painstakingly crafted and operated, and insanely detail oriented. And while it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the Oscar-nominated VFX in Kubo, it’s still gorgeous and admirable. The scenery and production design are beautiful, from Laika’s use of water during a rousing ship scene (nothing we’re not used to given what we’ve seen in Kubo), to the jungles and snowy mountains we’re treated to as our heroes approach Shangri La. We even get treated to some incredible timelapse footage of the Laika animation team moving an elephant forward during the end credits. As always with this studio, jaw-dropping work.
As stated before the only real flaws are that this feels a bit lighter, and a bit inconsequential when standing next to Laika’s best. It’s still a clever, funny, and charming movie, akin to, say, Aardman’s The Pirates: Band of Misfits, but you know Laika can do better and more unique films. As such, for me, the only movie in the Laika collection I’d say this tops is The Boxtrolls, which I wasn’t too fond of. But all in all that’s honestly not a negative thing, given that at the end of the day, it’s still a funny, sweet, simple little movie with a light but decent message. And ultimately, any way you slice it, I think the world could always use a little more Laika.