A film review by Craig J. Koban April 25, 2019

MISSING LINK jjj
       

2019, PG, 95 mins.

 

Zach Galifianakis as Mr. Susan Link (voice)  /  Hugh Jackman as Sir Lionel Frost (voice)  /  Zoe Saldana as Adelina Fortnight (voice)  /  Stephen Fry as Lord Piggot Dunceby (voice)  /  Emma Thompson as The Elder (voice)  /  Timothy Olyphant as Willard Stenk (voice)  /  Matt Lucas as Mr. Collick (voice)  /  David Walliams as Mr. Lemuel Lint (voice)  /  Amrita Acharia as Ama Lhamu (voice)

Written and directed by Chris Butler

 

 

 

 

The unendingly delightful and beautifully rendered MISSING LINK is the latest stop motion animated effort from Laika, the Oregon based studio that previously made one of the best films of its kind in 2016's KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (which, incidentally, made my list of the Ten Best Films of its year).  

Their follow-up effort could not be anymore different in MISSING LINK, which is more of a screwball period buddy comedy about an intrepid explorer and his friendship with...Bigfoot (yes, that one).  It's abundantly clear very early on that Laika is attempting to make more of a wacky comedy of spirited hijinks in the same manner as, say, Aardman, which is not bad, per se, but may turn off some of the former studio's most avid supporters.  Nevertheless, MISSING LINK emerges as yet another tour de force and visually extraordinary triumph for Laika, and even though it doesn't match the high artistry of KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, this latest stop motion endeavor mixes stunning imagery, flawless animation, and a cheeky irreverence with a rousing confidence. 

The central story introduces us to the aforementioned explorer in Sir Lionel Frost (voiced with snarky panache by Hugh Jackman), who has spent a lifetime in the pursuit of discovering tangible evidence of mythical creatures.  The opening sequence in MISSING LINK is sensational as it shows Frost and his colleague attempting to photograph the Loch Ness Monster, and it's a brilliantly orchestrated sequence that shows director Chris Butler's (PARANORMAN) ability to give this film a sense of awe inspiring scale and scope despite its simple, painstaking craft.  Frost has been trying to impress the members of a local exploration society for quite some time, which is headed up by Lord Piggot Dunceby (Stephen Fry), but getting into his and the society's good graces has frustratingly eluded him for years. 

 

 

Things change for the down on his luck Frost when he receives a letter from an unknown writer that promises him the existence and location of the Bigfoot, which prompts him to pack up his bags and head to America.  When he does reach the U.S. and makes contact with the 8 foot tall Sasquatch, he's astounded to discover that it's not only highly intelligent, but is extremely well spoken.  Plus - gasp! - Bigfoot himself is the secret writer of the letter that inspired Frost's cross country trek in the first place.  Going by the name Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis), he pleads with Frost to assist him with finding more of his displaced kind in the form of Yetis in Shangri-La.  This leads to yet another long distance trip for Frost, but this time he has Mr. Link in tow as well as his ex-girlfriend, Adelina (Zoe Saldana), who offers some much needed geographical assistance to the whole expedition.  Regretfully, the duplicitous minded and self-serving Lord Piggot-Dunceby can't bare the thought of Frost attaining any level of notoriety in their shared field, so he sends in a low level and gun-touting enforcer (Timothy Olyphant) hot on Frost's tail to take him and Mr. Link out.   

Rather predictably, MISSING LINK is a joyously rich and textured animated effort from Laika, and the film is positively dripping with a minute attention to detail that allows for such hypnotizing levels of audience immersion.  I like how the characters are indeed giving largely exaggerated and cartoony forms, but they still manage to move in a fluid and authentic manner that gives them a sense of tactile reality.  Butler also has a field day with the film's ambitious natural locations, and MISSING LINK is, at its heart, an old fashioned globe trotting adventure yarn in the same manner of an INDIANA JONES picture.  Despite that fact that the character, set designs and the various locations presented throughout don't technically look real, everything in the film feels inhabited and lived in.  Much like KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, MISSING LINK has a stark simplicity and economy of conception that breathes with a startlingly authentic nuance in every frame. 

The characters that populate the film are wonderfully realized as well, in particular Jackman's Frost, who is a rare mature and adult protagonist for a Laika feature film that's sort of easy to root for even with his sometimes snobby and aristocratic snarkiness.  MISSING LINK belongs, of course, to Mr. Link himself, who is an utterly compelling and colorful creation that has a sort of vulnerably neurotic vibe of a Woody Allen; his bumbling social awkwardness is a nice foil to the fact that he's exceptionally smart, at least as far as Sasquatches go.  There's a sly subplot and recurring gag in the film about Mr. Link's hyper literalness (he takes advice and instructions, for example, exactly as mentioned without fail, sometimes at the most inopportune times), but there's humor to be had at the expense of him changing his name to the more gender specific "Susan" later in the narrative, an interesting choice considering that he's never explicitly revealed to be either a boy or girl.  There's a subtle and nice message here speaking to the idea that assigning labels to a misunderstood fringe creature is petty and unnecessary. 

The film really starts to gain intriguing layers when Frost, Mr. Link, and Adelina reach the grand and secluded Yetis lands and are dealt with the nagging and demoralizing notion that they just may not really want to have anything to do with Mr. Link.  MISSING LINK also builds to individual set pieces of surprising levels of suspense alongside its frequent tongue in cheek comedic tone (and unlike so many other family friendly animated films, this one is not afraid to put characters in frightening predicaments that threaten their lives).  This is all building to one aspect that made me enjoy and appreciate MISSING LINK so much: Butler's film isn't chaotically and distractingly noisy like so many other kid-centric animated films that favor chaos and action over character development and atmosphere.  It's also not trying to be an aggressive minded pop culture infused comedy replete with in-jokes that feel incongruent with the film's 19th Century settings.  As a matter of fact, MISSING LINK takes its period setting seriously and invests in the budding friendship of Frost and Mr. Link and how their mutual acceptance of the other leads to positive change in their respective understanding of those once deemed different.   

Not all of the comedy in MISSING LINK works (for every joke that works there are several others that don't) and there's something to be said about Laika maybe going against the grain of the types of animated films they've specialized in before in their own unique ways (I think they're aiming for the same level of inviting whimsicality of a WALLACE AND GROMIT, which is awfully hard to replicate).  Still, MISSING LINK is such a visually delightful (and oftentimes breathtaking) stop motion animated film that you're willing to turn a blind eye to some of its faults.  And the film also matches its superb artistic virtues with a story that has a genuine heart and soul that's reflected in sharply written characters and a very game and finely tuned voice cast.  I find Laika films to be a pleasant and welcoming antidote to the somewhat soft pedaled safe zones that Disney and Pixar usually traverse through; they're still great family films, to be sure, but they have a bit more of an sophisticated edge that allow for them to stand out in a very crowded pack.  

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