This February marked the 10th anniversary of Coraline, the 2009 stop-motion animated feature that rose to critical and commercial success at the tail-end of the previous decade. Beyond being a beautifully-realized work of dark gothic fantasy, complimented with top-rate craftsmanship and a wide array of marvelous 3D designs that made the movie’s pop-up book flourishes more fully-realized, this acclaimed underdog hit welcomed Portland-based animation house Laika Studios into the perpetually-competitive animation fold. With the new decade looming ahead, this creepy animated horror flick brought the promise for a long-run of high-grade cinema in the near future. A whole ten years later, things look much dourer upon the release of their fifth feature, Missing Link.
Arriving at the scene during a surprisingly (and quite delightfully) bristling year for this peculiar hand-crafted form of animation, Laika Studios promised to welcome in a new era of engrossing and well-made animated features. The chance for stop-motion to receive not only critical acclaim but commercial success to boot was certainly music to the ears of people who, like me, seek out examples of the medium. The well-appreciated-but-rarely-profitable form of animation has often been trampled in the modern age of CG animation. Much like hand-drawn 2D animation, it gets sidelined by its brighter, balmier competition. It can be argued that younger audiences are trained to react more accordingly to computer animation and be turned off by the painstaking efforts of stop-motion animation. It’s hard to say for certain, but one thing has been made clear these past 10 years: despite continuing their trend of critically-acclaimed and breathtaking gorgeous films, Laika Studios has failed to house another major hit like Coraline.
Written and directed by Chris Butler, who previously wrote and co-helmed 2012’s delightfully spooky ParaNorman, Missing Link follows misunderstood adventurer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), an explorer who has tried to uncover the mysteries of the world with little tangible proof to defend his arguments to his high-minded peers. Determined to make a name for himself and earn the respect of his high-brow colleagues, Lionel gets a blessing when he receives a letter locating the whereabouts of Sasquatch, the long-rumored mystical creature lurking in the woods.
Traveling to the location written in the letter, Sir Lionel is shocked to discover that not only does Sasquatch exist but he is the one who penned the notice of his existence. As it turns out, the well-read, well-spoken Sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis), who is later named Mr. Link (as in, Missing Link), needs Sir Lionel’s help. Mr. Link needs Sir Lionel’s companionship as he travels around the world in search of his ancestors, hoping to get acquainted with yetis or creatures of his kind. Mr. Link will give Sir Lionel proof of his existence, and Sir Lionel will provide Mr. Link with a chance to not be alone. Along the way, Mr. Link and Sir Lionel crossed paths with Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana). Together, these three loners learn to find companionship in one another.
Missing Link is decidedly the most kid-friendly of Laika’s films, which is a weird comment to make considering that all of their films are intended for younger audiences – though they appeal to older audiences as well. While all of these animated films have been appropriate for audiences of a certain age, Missing Link is the film that seems to be intended more specifically for the ten and under crowd. It seems primarily geared towards the younger audiences who might’ve been scared off by the darker, creepier movies produced by Laika prior to this film. That doesn’t make Missing Link a weaker film on its own, but limits its appeal. The humor is wackier with a messier hit or miss success rate. The story is familiar in its structure and predictable in its resolution. The result is a film that doesn’t fall short so much as it fails to captivate the older audiences. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s good to make a film with the kiddos squarely in mind. But it makes it a less engaging viewing for anyone in the double digits.
Once again, however, the stop-motion animation in Missing Link is absolutely stunning. The life, passion, warmth, and creativity brought into every single character design, backdrop and piece of fur is astonishing and impeccable. The level of care that went into the film’s look is appreciated in every frame. It’s a shame, then, that such patient and rewarding care wasn’t seen in the script.
Beyond the continuously gorgeous stop-motion animated that continues to bring such delicate control to these hard-wrought productions, Missing Link feels disappointingly lackluster when it comes to its writing. The story doesn’t feel quite as impactful as the ones found in, say, Kubo and the Two Strings, Coraline or ParaNorman, and while there’s great sweetness to the fable presented here, it can’t help but feel a little too shallow and safe by the studio’s typically riskier standards. It still holds progressive touches, including key elements that prove that Laika is still willing to push boundaries and introduce forward-thinking ideas even in their lesser movies. But Missing Link nevertheless feels a bit empty. It’s not half-hearted, but it doesn’t resonate as well.
The voice acting remains dependably strong from our talented leads, particularly from a soft and cuddly Zach Galifianakis. The production elements are assured and gracefully-handled, and there is a great tenderness to this new Laika film that’s hard to dismiss. Yet, it still falls a bit too short to reach the great heights found from the studio’s better works, and it provides some great worry.
Considering how Missing Link is a film that’s more-or-less about owning up to your quirks and being your best self (despite the negative perceptions of narrow-minded people in your way), this newest Laika production is strangely — and disappointingly — a little too generic for its own good. Particularly given Laika’s exceptional resume thus far, Missing Link unfortunately takes the place of the weakest Laika film to date, and it’s a bummer to see its low point come so shortly after its greatest high, 2016’s awe-striking Kubo and the Two Strings. If it were to be the last film we see from the once-promising offices of Laika Studios, then it would be very underwhelming.