Since the dissolution of Studio Ghibli there hasn’t really been a studio actively trying to make strong, adult-orientated animation except for Laika Studios. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, this year has brought us the joy of Toy Story 4 after all, the films coming out of Laika prove that there is a place for this kind of smart, involving stop motion in today’s cinematic landscape.
Telling the story of Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), an adventurer desperately seeking validation from the adventurers guild that has refused him entry for years takes up an expedition in search of the elusive Sasquatch called Link (Zach Galifianakis) who he discovers just wants to find his own kind. The two, both in search of their place, decide to help each other and travel to Shangri-La to reunite Link with his family.
A late convert, my first introduction to Laika was 2016’s Kubo & The Two Strings, a sumptuous thrill ride using the magic of animation to tell a story about a child’s imagination and the hardships of loss. It was smart and original but also sharp in its comic moments. It wasn’t a movie aimed at a young audience. However, following Kubo, Laika has desperately needed a more profitable film and Missing Link aims much more towards a dual audience.
This might just have been the right creative choice though as they have moved into new territory and a different, more playful kind of storytelling. This different direction is definitely more mainstream, an adventure comedy, the kind that has an accessibility that Kubo lacked. The kind of film more akin to early days Aardman animations, this Jackman fronted story of an unlikely friendship is constantly fun but what makes it work is its sense of self.
A tale about wanting to belong and the deep regrets that come from trying too hard, director Chris Butler’s film is never weighed down by these ideas, instead, using them to bolster the oftentimes shallow Lionel with new depth while giving the comedy a tender bite. These are characters that live outside of the brief moments you spend with them, bound to events you weren’t privy to. Link and Lionel are hiding mistakes from their past, just like we all are, they aren’t perfect or special and Butler doesn’t want them to be.
While they might be lively company, Butler’s film finds most of its comedy out of the dire behaviour both of them actively participate in. The terrible actions Lionel made before the film starts have created the guarded and listless joker you will come to appreciate. Equally, Link is still bound to his endless loneliness and his innocent and naive attempts to connect with Lionel provide the beating heart of Missing Link’s story.
Unlike prior Laika outings, Link is pure escapism that puts a spotlight on the little moments. From Lionel’s first encounter with Link to an electric bar fight, Butler uses colour and some imaginative set design to bring out the best of his two ‘heroes’. While Kubo found drama in the dark, Link lives in the light of day, a bright dreamy look to match the tone Butler is shooting for. This might not be the same edge of your seat, tension-filled adventure you were expecting but it isn’t without a feeling of great excitement.
There is no denying that this is a playful film but great lengths have been taken to create a world that feels real, one you can recognise and appreciate for the hardships we all face daily. A film consumed by the notion that coping with the things around us is easier with someone else, Missing Link is a story of friendship, a little simplistic at times with a story that doesn’t require much effort to follow but a big beating heart.
This might not be as strong as Kubo or as unique as ParaNorman but there is plenty to love here, from the excellent thematic work to the oftentimes sidesplitting comedy, Butler has managed to bridge the gap with some impressive double coding for a film that should be a pleasure for all involved.