Two of 2018’s biggest films, both in terms of hard cash box office and pervasive word of mouth, were Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians. Black Panther made $700 million domestic, Crazy Rich Asians made $174 million domestic, each was a watershed moment in their respective superhero and romantic comedy genres, and their casts generated headlines with every stylish red carpet appearance. I mean, how many times can we talk about how amazing Lupita Nyong’o and Gemma Chan looked at every premiere event? The limit does not exist!
What each film did was demonstrate that a movie can be very specific in its cultural point of view while also universal in its themes about life, love, happiness, and family — something we learned from Emily Gordon’s and Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick just a year before. And so while both Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians are obviously very different films — one about a power struggle in an African nation that was never colonized, that hid itself from the world, in order to survive; the other about a Chinese-American woman’s struggle to fit in with her boyfriend’s obscenely wealthy, unyieldingly exacting family — they each approach the question of first-generation immigrant experiences and the struggle between the old country and the new with nuance, insight, and empathy for both sides.
Those aren’t conversations we’re used to having about blockbuster films, but Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians made them normal. This is what we talk about when we talk about inclusive filmmaking: the opportunity to explore and reflect experiences that may not be everyone’s, but that are fascinating and gorgeous and tragic, that reflect the full range of human experience.
Think of the desire of Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger to learn everything he could about Wakanda, and his struggle to not only exist as a black American whose lineage is nearly impossible to trace because of the cultural stain of slavery but as the child of a country who had the opportunity to take him in but instead turned their back.
That is the first-generation immigrant story — the desire to understand where you came from and the knowledge that they may not want you, that you may not be enough, that you being a descendant doesn’t automatically gain you access to your ancestors. And something similar is happening in Crazy Rich Asians, too, in that Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor is convinced that Constance Wu’s Rachel isn’t appropriate for her son, won’t be a good wife, because her upbringing as an American has made her too independent, too individualistic, too disinterested in honoring a certain way of life.
The difference between certain readings of what it means to be Asian and what it means to be Asian-American, captured in one potential mother-in-law and daughter-in-law duo — in Eleanor’s “You will never be enough” and in Rachel’s parting speech, in her “I just wanted you to know: that one day — when he marries another lucky girl who is enough for you, and you’re playing with your grandkids while the Tan Hua’s are blooming, and the birds are chirping — that it was because of me: a poor, raised by a single mother, low class, immigrant nobody.”
That, too, is a first-generation immigrant story — an exploration not only of wealth and class, but of the ways people use those benefits to simultaneously shield themselves and assert superiority. And I will say, too, that I don’t want to entirely criticize the old country mentality here — there is comfort there, and safety, and I think of my parents, and how they grew up in a place and at a time that sometimes feels as mysterious to me as my life does to them. But my point here is that this duality, this conversation between then and now, is receiving a lot of long-overdue attention in film, and it’s one I think can only benefit our understanding of both sides. And all of this is to say that Missing Link, the latest stop-motion animation masterpiece from Laika, excels at this conversation, too, with its own twist.
SPOILERS FOR MISSING LINK FOLLOW
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Missing Link tells the story of the mythical Sasquatch figure, the “missing link” between our ape ancestors and our current Homo sapiens selves. It is the desire of famed adventurer Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman) to find this creature, and so he travels from Great Britain to Washington State (the first “old country” to “new country” move). Frost doesn’t know that the leader of the adventures’ club that he wants to join has sent an assassin to follow him and kill Frost and whatever he finds (“We are descended from great men, not great apes!” the club’s president yells), but he does know, as soon as he meets the creature he names Mr. Link (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), that he has found someone extraordinary.
Mr. Link is polite, prone to taking things literally, an expert on his surroundings, and deeply lonely. As Western expansion causes the destruction of his forest home (“Your world gets bigger; mine goes away”), he wants to find his family — and he thinks that the Yeti of the Himalayas are his cousins. How did he end up here when the Yetis are there? Maybe separate evolutionary patterns, or maybe one of them made their way over to the Americas somehow and started their own community. But either way, Mr. Link wants to go back, back to where he thinks he belongs, back to the old country from the new.
So Mr. Link and Lionel and Lionel’s old flame and explorer in her own right, Adelina Fortnight (voiced by Zoe Saldana), set off. And during the journey, Mr. Link reveals more and more of himself, his interests and his personality, his quirks and his preferences. He no longer wants to go by Mr. Link; he chooses the name Susan for himself. He doesn’t particularly like wearing clothes, or maybe he just wants to wear a suit that fits instead of one they stole off another man. And although he doesn’t really like eating yak meat, he does think the yak dung used for fuel is a tasty treat — like a crispy cookie! It’s a gross moment that the kids in the audience at my screening loved!
But when the group finally arrives in the Himalayas, they’re not welcomed to Shangri-La, but captured and taken hostage by the Yetis. The Elder (Emma Thompson), the leader of their community, has no interest in accepting someone new into their secret and sacred space — not even if that creature is similar to them. If she accepts them, other outsiders could find them, and that would endanger the peace they have built for themselves. She calls Susan a “redneck,” she has no sympathy for Susan’s loneliness, and when they argue that her rejection of his presence is “barbaric,” she replies that it’s “preservation.” (Brings to mind T’Challa’s father’s decision to abandon Erik in Black Panther, doesn’t it?) In fact, the Yeti don’t even call their home by Shangri-La, which is clearly considered a colonizers’ term — their name for the place is in their own language, and translated, the Elder shares it means “Keep out, we hate you.”
Shaken by their rejection, Susan has to decide who he wants to be and where he wants to go, and it’s a decision that leads him toward a new life in Great Britain, alongside Frost as his partner and equal. His first home has been destroyed. His attempt to be accepted into what could be his original home is rebuffed. And so Susan picks somewhere new, forging his own story, and starting over entirely on his own terms. And the Yetis get an extreme version of what they want, too, as the ice bridge they have built to connect them to the outside world is destroyed during Susan, Lionel, and Adelina’s escape. (That bridge collapse also kills off the old white man who thought Lionel was foolish for believing in evolution, so that’s fine.)
It’s an isolationist move that is the exact opposite of what ends up happening with Wakanda in Black Panther, but more in line with Crazy Rich Asians and the narratives of Kevin Kwan’s sequels: There are some people who will always prize tradition and what they consider to be authenticity over individuality and ingenuity, and that’s their prerogative. You can’t let that control you. You always have the power to break out on your own, to be your own person, to choose whatever name you want and whatever home you want and whatever life you want. That doesn’t mean you forget where you came from, or that the “old ways” are automatically bad, but it does mean you set your path forward for yourself. Missing Link makes that all very clear, and by the end of the film, you’ll understand Susan to be a pioneer, one whose identity and adventure seems very similar to our own.