Animated adventure looks to the classics for inspiration
Missing Link (2019)
Directed by Chris Butler
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Fry
Seems like everybody and his brother is pumping out CGI-animated kids’ movies these days. They hit theaters on a near-weekly basis and run the gamut from the exceptional (anything from Pixar) to the merely diversionary (Paramount Animation’s recent Wonder Park). So when a film breaks the mold in any small way, it’s worth noting. The American animation studio Laika has made a name for itself among animation buffs for producing a string of three-dimensional stop-motion-animated features. The studio first burst out with Henry Selick’s 2009 fable Coraline. That was followed by ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls and Kubo and the Two Strings—all offbeat fantasies that failed to generate much attention at the box office but were roundly praised for their artistic skill. Now comes the old-fashioned adventure comedy Missing Link, which is as gorgeously crafted as its predecessors and boasts one of Laika’s most accessible storylines to date.
The briskly paced film centers on Sir Lionel Frost (voiced with brio by Hugh Jackman), a wealthy, chisel-chinned Victorian-era adventurer who has spent years crossing the globe trying to prove the existence of various cryptozoological creatures. After yet another failed adventure (this one to capture conclusive evidence of the elusive Loch Ness Monster), Frost finds himself shunned by an exclusive London-based society of gentleman explorers. Membership in said society—and the recognition of his various wild scientific theories—is the sole goal of Sir Lionel’s life. But the snooty club members—led by gruff, gun-toting hunter Lord Piggot-Dunceb (Stephen Fry)—are faintly embarrassed by Frost and his crazy adventures. Stung by the rejection, Frost makes a bet with Piggot-Dunceb: If he can prove the existence of just one of his hard-to-find monsters, he’ll be allowed into the club. If he fails, he’ll leave, once and for all, in disgrace.
Encouraged by a letter from America advising him about the possible location of the legend known as Bigfoot, Frost packs up his equipment and heads for the Pacific Northwest. Much to his surprise, he finds a single, lonely and unexpectedly erudite sasquatch (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) waiting for him. It seems that this hairy man of the forest is the last of his kind. Unable to locate any friends, he has written to Frost in hopes that the world traveler will guide him to the Himalayas—where rumors of mysterious Yeti sightings could provide the species-appropriate companionship our titular ape-man craves. Touched by the friendly fuzzball’s sad story (and sure that such a globe-hopping adventure would secure his place in the explorer’s club), Frost agrees to ferry Mr. Link (as he soon dubs him) to the fabled city of Shangri-La.
Being a proper cartoon villain, however, Lord Piggot-Dunceb has taken steps to ensure Frost’s failure. He hires a merciless fortune hunter named Stenk (Timothy Olyphant) to keep Frost and his no-longer-mythical companion from reaching their destination. Realizing that the only possible map to Shangri-La rests with the widow of Frost’s old partner, Frost and Link head to California to acquire (steal, really) the map from Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana). But the widow proves a tough nut to crack. Bored with her life and craving some adventure of her own, she demands to go along with the boys. What follows is a round-the-world chase via train, steamship and various other Jules Verne-approved methods of conveyance.
A lot of the elements contained within Missing Link come preassembled, straight off the shelf. In addition to the aforementioned Verne, there are recognizable chunks of Victorian fabulist Sir H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines), pulp novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan) and comic book genius Carl Barks (“Tralla La” from Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge). Given those roots, there’s plenty of Indiana Jones on display as well. But the familiarity of elements doesn’t hurt Missing Link any. In fact, its choice of inspirations gives the film a quaintly old-fashioned adventure novel feel.
Visually, of course, this is a stunning achievement. The amount of work that goes into producing a stop-motion-animated film (even one utilizing the most up-to-date of 3D-printed silicone models) is painstaking. The textures on display here are stunning (something even the most high-tech computer animation can’t properly replicate). From the rough tweeds of Sir Lionel’s suits to the multilayered leaves of the Indian jungle, Missing Link is awash in eye-boggling detail.
Even the most beautifully rendered environments wouldn’t amount to much if not for a winning narrative. With Missing Link, Laika finally finds an emotional backbone that was missing in films like Boxtrolls and Kubo. The growing friendship between Frost and Mr. Link is truly touching. Of course, Frost is going to eventually have to come to terms with the possible exploitation of his new friend for personal gain. But Missing Link doesn’t try to build him up as some selfish, secret-keeping bad guy just so it can make with the expected third-act character change. Sure there are lessons to be learned, and everyone will eventually figure out that what they want and what they need aren’t necessarily the same thing. But the film’s simple script (provided by its director, Chris Butler), is smartly structured, nicely dovetailing Frost’s and Link’s stories of personal growth. This is aided by some very good back-and-forth camaraderie between the leads, who treat it almost like a Laurel and Hardy film. Galifianakis is a particular standout, providing the most emotional role of his career (voicing an animated lump of clay, no less).
Lovingly rendered, swiftly paced and tenderhearted to a fault, Missing Link is an entertaining comic adventure for audiences of all ages. Here’s hoping this handcrafted treasure doesn’t get lost in Hollywood’s sea of CGI.