‘Missing Link’: Laika’s Near-Great Latest Is Rousing & Exquisite

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(2019—Director: Chris Butler)

— by Renard N. Bansale

High ★★★½

(out of 5 stars)

“The ‘word’, my dear fellow, is ‘trust’.” — Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) to Mr. Link/Susan (Zach Galifianakis)

 Potential spoilers below

2016 was a remarkably diverse year for animation, and it culminated with Disney’s Zootopia winning the Best Animated Feature Oscar (video here). I’m still a fan of that buddy crime comedy, not to mention the disappointingly under-heralded anime Your Name.both made my top ten that year. At the same time, however, I remain a firm dissenter of one of Zootopia’s fellow Oscar nominees—the Japanese-inspired Kubo & the Two Strings, from stop-motion animation studio Laika and produced and directed by studio president/CEO Travis Knight (son of Nike co-founder Phil Knight, also Laika’s chairman). Despite its undeniably wondrous and meticulous animation, Kubo continues to disappoint me with its spotty screenplay and unearned projection of heartfelt grandeur—very reminiscent of a certain 2018 animated film that, unlike Kubo, would prevail over Disney at the Oscars.

Three years on, and Laika unveils their fifth production. Led by writer-director Chris Butler, Missing Link is set in the late 1880s and centers on the latest adventure of Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman, charming and confident), “famed seeker of mythical beasts”. He’s also an apparent failure at living up to that description, at least in the snobbish eyes of the club of “great men” he wishes to join and especially those of high-ranking member Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry). Sir Lionel’s assistant Lemuel Lint (David Williams) resigns after nearly getting eaten by the Loch Ness Monster in Sir Lionel’s attempt to photograph it. Undeterred, Sir Lionel decides to answer a curious letter from someone in Washington State, USA who turns out to be the fabled sasquatch. The sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis, lovably timid), dubbed “Mr. Link” by Sir Lionel and adopting “Susan” for himself, wishes to approach the legendary yetis of Shangri-La in the Himalayas (Emma Thompson as the Yeti Elderess) so that he can live among creatures like himself. Luckily, Sir Lionel’s late former partner Aladis Fortnight drew a map to the supposed mountain community, now in the possession of Aladis’ widow and Sir Lionel’s old flame Adelina (a fiery Zoe Saldana). With Lord Piggot-Dunceby’s hired assassin Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant, treacherous and loving it) hot on their trail, Sir Lionel, “Mr. Link/Susan”, and Adelina have no time to lose.

Given that Isle of Dogs by Wes Anderson ended up as my silver medalist for last year, it seems clear that I hold an affinity for lovingly-crafted stop-motion animation, and Missing Link certainly counts towards that. Chris Butler not only serves as writer-director, but also as character designer. His collaboration with Adam Lawthers and Brad Schiff’s animation teams has resulted in unique-looking characters inhabiting a wondrous and colorful world (courtesy of production designer Nelson Lowry, who melds physical foregrounds with CG backgrounds). Further enlivening all of this is the uplifting score by Carter Burwell—one that deserves to stand out in Best Original Score discussions in the coming months. Finally, Stephen Perkins’ film editing keeps everything flowing nice and chipper, with several clever sound match cuts (aided by supervising sound editor Tim Chau) inserted throughout. Perkins also revives the travel map montage of Indiana Jones, giving it a diegetic spin by having Sir Lionel (with the occasional interjections by Mr. Link/Susan and Adelina) actually update their trajectories on real maps in real time.

That Missing Link reminds me, not just of Indiana Jones, but also of Sherlock Holmes leads me to my misgivings with Chris Butler’s character writing here. The demeanors of both inspirations rank lower on each character’s priority ladders compared to the adventure or task at hand. Their stubbornness, narcissism, and even sociopathic tendencies make them stumble (sometimes in their work, almost always in their relationships), but they still live to see tomorrow.

Sir Lionel and Mr. Link/Susan each want something that refuses to welcome them in return. Missing Link, however, focuses more on the former, oftentimes using Adelina to serve as Sir Lionel’s faultless vocal conscience (and little else, unfortunately) in this somewhat lopsided dynamic. The club Sir Lionel wishes to join views him as a fraud, yet the movie also portrays Sir Lionel from the opening scene and well throughout as more than capable, both physically (he catches up to the Loch Ness Monster underwater) and intellectually (he performs and catalogs tons of research). The Sir Lionel audiences see simply isn’t the sham other characters say he is. Mr. Link/Susan’s wishes, meanwhile, derive from a genuine loneliness. Yet even that ultimately gets under-addressed in the movie’s hasty closing minutes, which come off as though Butler & Co. were on their last pennies in the budget.

Had Missing Link focused on just the adventure and saved the more serious character moments for a potential sequel, then the result could have been a much tighter adventure introducing viewers to Sir Lionel Frost, Mr. Link/Susan, and Adelina Fortnight. Alas, as the inner conflicts bubble to close to the surface, the movie offsets them by elongating the travel map montages: The wide segment from landing in Paris (following a spectacular chase on the transatlantic boat) to journeying to Nepal on Indian elephants gets condensed into less than a minute and deprives the film of more exotic sights (and maybe more intricate action setpieces) to behold. Missing Link could’ve been the definitive, albeit belated animated offspring of 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it came quite close. Instead, given the film’s severely lackluster box office take two weeks before the inevitable behemoth that is Avengers: Endgame, Missing Link has become yet another nail in the probable coffin containing Laika’s feature film division.

Adapt and evolve…or fade away. I pray Laika still has time to choose the former. Should they survive by going on hiatus, then I hope another adventure with Sir Lionel Frost, Mr. Link/Susan, and Adelina Fortnight remains on the horizon. They deserve that second shot at greatness.

(Parental Note: Missing Link has been rated PG by the MPAA “for action/peril and some mild rude humor.” It has also been rated PG by the BBFC for “mild violence, threat,” and “language”, and rated A-II (Adults and older children) by the Catholic News Service for containing “mature, sometimes rude humor, cartoon mayhem, and some peril.”)

R.N.B.


About the Author

Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.

For more movie reviews by Renard, click here 

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