Stop-motion animation is, sadly, an increasingly underappreciated art but one of the best studios still in the game in Laika. The creators of “Coraline”, “ParaNorman”, “The Boxtrolls”, and “Kubo and the Two Strings” who also helped with “Corpse Bride” and the stop-motion segments of “A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas” may not have the most spectacular box office record but they continue to provide grade-A animated products all the same, reminding us all why the medium deserves to stay. The studio’s latest product, “Missing Link”, is one of a few in an oddly growing line of recent animated features focusing on the legends of the Yeti and Bigfoot and once again shows off Laika’s stop motion specialty. With few big names involved and a capable studio bringing it all to life does “Missing Link” stand out as another gem in Laika’s small but fantastic library or does it serve as their first true misfire? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Missing Link”.
“Missing Link” focuses on adventurer and myth investigator Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) who receives a letter informing him of proof of the mysterious Sasquatch or “Bigfoot”. Frost decides to seek out the creature in order to earn the respect of Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), the devious head of a society of great adventurers that Frost wishes to join. Frost arrives in the mountain of the American west and discovers the sender is none other than the Bigfoot himself (Zach Galifianakis) who Frost decides to call Link. Link explains that his goal for seeking out Frost was to use the adventurer’s knowledge to bring Link together with his Yeti ancestors in the Himalayas. Frost and Link are joined by Frost’s former flame Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana) whose late husband previously attempted to find the Yetis. As the group seeks to help Link find his new home they are pursued by Lord Piggot-Dunceby and bounty hunter Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant) who seek to prevent the world from ever knowing the truth about the Sasquatch.
Alright so this weekend has provided me with two films that allow me to show completely different reactions to films. On one hand, we got “Hellboy” that I felt was a terrible film and I destroyed in my review because it failed to meet expectations. “Missing Link” however not only met my expectations, it surpassed them is virtually every way. I was already pretty sure I’d at least enjoy “Missing Link” based on Laika’s track record alone, but the final product was not only well crafted and well-acted it was entertaining, fun and incredibly charming to boot. Stop motion can be a tough style to handle with perfection requiring hours of commitment and meticulous precision. “Missing Link” presents perhaps the best example of this animation style that we’ve seen in years. Despite being made using figures moved a fraction of an inch at a time to bring the characters to life the presentation is fluid, convincing and beautifully done. Every character movement is fluid and smooth giving them a real lifelike appearance with every detail, from the movement of their facial features to Link’s body-covering hair in the wind. While we should marvel at the incredible dedication it takes to perfect these kinds of details with traditional and computer animation it’s REALLY hard to create a project that looks this clean and refined through stop motion and yet “Missing Link” is just that, a smooth and visually stunning experience made from nothing more than model and small backdrops.
Even when a film looks good though it still needs an engaging story and memorable characters to get the job done and “Missing Link” has both. The voice work in this film is fantastic with the likes of Zoe Saldana, Hugh Jackman and Zach Galifianakis behind the microphones. They all do a wonderful job bringing personality to their characters such as Jackman’s Frost being a self-centered adventurer, Saldana’s Adelina being an adventurous and rebellious strong woman and Galifianakis bringing to life Link, the out of touch but still somehow literate Sasquatch who provides some of the most hilarious moments of the film thanks to his ignorance of proper etiquette and his sometimes innocently dry reactions to scenarios and events. Surprisingly one of the best aspects of this film is the comedy which I honestly did not expect. While I won’t go so far as to say “Missing Link” bends the rules of comedic formulas I have to admit that while I realized many of the film’s clichés in hindsight I wasn’t aware nor did I care about them in the moment. There were numerous scenes and deliveries that left me cry laughing. “Missing Link” never tries too hard to force a laugh and is better off for it, even making poop jokes somehow feel a bit more high class than they normally should be.
The story might honestly be the weakest aspect of the film which is saying something when even that makes for a fun adventure. The man-meets-mythical-beast theme has been done to death throughout the years so it’s hard for me to call “Missing Link” anywhere close to wholly original. But I will say it’s probably the most entertaining, charming and engaging take on this kind of story I’ve ever seen. That’s because, as I said before, “Missing Link” doesn’t try too hard and it’s certainly not trying to be anything it’s not. A well-written script and well-paced direction also make the story easy to follow without sacrificing too many of the complexities hidden beneath the narrative. I think where the film fails the most is in its third act where the fate of the villains and the interaction with the Yetis do feel a bit rushed and anticlimactic delving into more unapologetically cliché territory than the rest of the feature. The final message the film seeks to present is typical of these kinds of narratives and I feel like there could have been a lot more effort put into exploring this theme just a little more. Regardless what makes “Missing Link” so much fun is that it owns every aspect of its being, from its clichés to its more original concepts and humor, and rolls with it. It never feels like it drags on while giving sufficient development to both the characters and their journey. Yeah, the emotional subtext could have used a little more development, but that doesn’t change the fact that I enjoyed this film on a different level as a genuinely entertaining and lighthearted adventure.
It’s not really a criticism of the film, but I think it’s worth mentioning just how strangely common these mythical beast films are becoming lately especially when it comes to the Yeti and Bigfoot. I already namedropped “Smallfoot” which was a Sony release from last year that honestly wasn’t as bad as people seemed to think it was. Later this year we’re also getting “Abominable”, a DreamWorks film focusing also on a Yeti. Add in “Missing Link” and that’s three animated movies from three different studios in a year’s time that are all based on the same legends. I don’t know why the Yeti and Bigfoot have become so popular with kids nowadays but, apparently, this is a thing and it seems every major studio wants to have some piece of the pie just with a different flavor. I’m actually glad “Missing Link” didn’t come around later when this apparent trend inevitably overstays its welcome. Instead of being caught up in the cliché it feels like “Missing Link” is setting the standard and with that in mind it has set a bar other films like it are going to have a tough time matching.
So yeah, I loved “Missing Link”. If you’re thinking of skipping this feature because of its unique look, don’t. This is stop motion animation at its very best with smooth presentation and fun visuals that remind us why this style is so fun to experience in the first place. “Missing Link” is one of Laika’s brightest and best features to date showcasing just how far this style has come and how visually appealing the animation remains to this day even with computer animation dominating the market and expanding the realm of possibilities year after year. Great voice acting brings a fun and hilarious script to life while the story manages to be engaging and enjoyable despite lacking a little bit of substance or creativity in terms of its emotional subtext. “Missing Link” was a joy to watch and it’s a rare feature that more than surpassed almost every expectation I set upon it. While it might ultimately end up buried as a forgotten gem of 2019 if you get the chance to enjoy this flick I highly recommend you take the time.