From Coraline and ParaNorman to The Boxtrolls and Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika has forged a defiant path in animation, favoring stop-motion over slick CGI and quirky tales of monsters and misfits over sweeping musicals with pretty princesses and cuddly sidekicks. Their latest, Missing Link, continues this chain of enchanting adventures with the story of a Sasquatch and the aristocrat who discovered him.
Written and directed by ParaNorman’s Chris Butler, Missing Link begins with Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), a Victorian-era English gentleman who has devoted his life—and his family’s massive fortune—to proving the existence of beasts of legend. In a rousing opening sequence, we see this posh explorer go from complaining about the “tepid” tea served by his vexed valet to wrestling with the mighty Loch Ness Monster, without ever batting an eye. But his tales of derring-do and discoveries are not enough to impress the exclusive adventurers’ society to which he longs to belong. So when Frost is offered the unique opportunity to get up close to the elusive Sasquatch, he sets off on a quest that will prove an unexpected road to an unusual friendship.
Susan (Zach Galifianakis) is not what Frost—or audiences—might expect of a Bigfoot. Sure, he’s big and hairy and lives in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, leaving massive footprints and roaring when the occasion demands. But he also has a firm grasp of the English language, a radiantly warm demeanor, and expert comedic timing. Frost and Susan make a pitch-perfect comedy duo, with the gentleman as the snooty straight-man and the sasquatch as the smiling stooge. Susan’s confusion about turns of phrase—like “you have my word”—makes for delightfully daffy exchanges with the creature being completely oblivious to Frost’s mounting frustration. It’s a classic device given a clever fish-out-of-water spin and made to sing with the seamless blending of voice-work and animation.
Jackman brings a charming bravado with an edge of elitist arrogance to Frost, while Galifianakis brings a guileless giddiness cut occasionally with sincere surprise. And the artists of Laika emphasize every emotion with an astonishing detail to physicality and expression: the flourish of a hand’s wag, the crooked tilt of a perplexed smile, the nervous shrug of furry shoulders. Such capturing of gesture is impressive in every form of animation. But here, with these puppets, you can feel the weight of every motion and see the real wrinkle in the costumes’ fabrics. Much like practical effects still have an added oomph over CGI because of their substance, there’s just something uniquely thrilling about these stop-motion creations.
Within the first ten minutes, I was gleeful. Missing Link has a classic style of comedy expressed through masterful animation that’s expressive and exciting. I could have watched Frost and Susan banter in the forest for hours. Unfortunately, they must set off on the next leg of their journey, to find the latter’s long-lost cousins, the Yetis. And on the way, Missing Link goes a bit off the rails. They’ll face off against a vicious Great White Hunter (Timothy Olyphant spitting a sneering cowboy accent), a rival adventurer (a snitty Stephen Fry), and a steely Yeti ruler (Emma Thompson bringing shade so cold it gives frostbite). And there’s much fun to be had in its saloon brawls, ocean liner shenanigans, and various daring escapes! But the pace goes from romping to lumbering in several scenes heavy with expositional dialogue. Plus, the crude inclusion of Strong Female Character, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), had me wincing.
While Frost and Susan have a crackling dynamic, Adelina becomes a problematic third wheel. She’s a former flame of Frost’s who can hold her own in a tight situation. But her characterization and place in the plot make her feel more like a poorly thought out script note than a character. It’s as if some exec worried “There are not enough women in this!” So Butler hastily slapped together a bunch of tired tropes in place of one. For instance, Adelina swiftly falls into the “fiery Latina” stereotype, complete with throwing furniture and shouting insults in a flurry that chases Frost out of her home. She’s introduced as an obstacle, blocking his access to a map that could lead them to the Yeti. Then she’s floated as a love interest as she and Frost rehash their past romance. Naturally, she’ll roll her eyes at the boys’ silly back-and-forth, and will be sure to badger Frost about feelings. But hey, she wears pants and talks about being independent. So, who cares if her character has zero depth and falls into harmful stereotypes that paint Latinas as over-emotional and women as joyless nags! (I do.)
Adelina’s role in Missing Link feels clumsily considered, which is bewildering since the film’s central theme is about its male characters opening themselves up to a wider world of influences and perspectives. And it’s frustrating when LAIKA’s given us such rich female characters in the past, like the plucky but rebellious Coraline and the horror-loving girly girl Winnie Portley-Rind. Still, there’s a lot of fun to be found in this wonky romp. At its core is a heart-warming message about the value of broadening one’s mind and the wonders to be found in unlikely friendships. Despite it sexist stumble, I’d recommend LAIKA’s latest. I just wish I didn’t have to issue such a disclaimer.
Header Image Source: LAIKA