Missing Link evolves the adventure genre
Missing Link is the fifth film from Laika, written and directed by longtime studio member Chris Butler (he wrote and directed Paranorman and also wrote Kubo and the Two Strings). Butler has been responsible for scripting all three of the studio’s original films (Coraline and Boxtrolls were based on existing material), and his signature is progressive takes on classic genres. Well, mostly progressive. More on that later.
All of the studio's films are chiefly concerned with the power of stories themselves. Each one involves some sort of myth or legend, with the characters discovering the real truth to be more complicated than they had previously imagined. Missing Link fits well within the set.
The film opens with Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) successfully discovering the Loch Ness Monster, but failing to return with proof of its existence. Goaded on by the priggish head of the explorers’ society, Lord Piggot-Dunceb (Stephen Fry), Frost heads to the Pacific Northwest in order to find proof of the existence of a Sasquatch, whom he believes to be the missing link in man’s evolutionary chain.
All of that changes when it turns out that the Sasquatch invited Frost to the forest. And he can speak English (voiced by Zach Galifianakis). Given the name Mr. Link by Frost, the two set out to reunite him with his yeti cousins in the Himalayas. They meet another adventurer, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana) who joins them on the quest, all while being pursued by Piggot-Dunceb’s hired guns led by Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant).
Missing Link actively engages with the question about how to make a traditional adventure film set at the turn of the previous century while not reenacting colonial values. Piggot-Dunceb is shown to be anti-evolution and anti-women, as well as generally being classist, etc. Frost is shown to be someone who is more enlightened than Piggot-Dunceb, still thinks he wants to be in his company, and is a believer in the superiority of men and the primacy of English cultural values. He’s more open to them being challenged by both Adelina and Mr. Link, but it requires prodding to get him to self-examine.
Making a film about colonial exploiters (exploiters was an autocorrect when I was clumsily trying to spell ‘explorers,’ but I’m leaving it) in 2019 is a difficult balance and at least Missing Link engages with that openly. However, it still stumbles from time to time. There’s still the trope of characters reacting to local cuisine as completely gross that is a direct pull from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which feels even more tone deaf in a movie that is trying to act as a corrective. Or at least self-aware.
Still, while not feeling like an instant classic from a storytelling perspective like Paranorman or Kubo, Link is an equally amazing visual achievement. The stop-motion animation is so beautiful you almost forget that you’re looking at environments and characters that were crafted by human hands out of raw materials. Of course it is aided by computer animation, but the bridge feels seamless, and there was more than one shot that made me wonder how exactly it was done.
And that’s on top of exquisite details in the frame itself. There’s a sequence where our heroes are riding in a horse-drawn carriage through Monument Valley. The camera is situated in the classic Western shot of being inside the carriage with the characters. It sways as the carriage moves. The characters also react believably to the movement of the carriage. The iconic landscape goes by in believable fashion. And inside the carriage there are little tassels where the ceiling meets the walls, which also move accordingly and respond to whatever jolts and bumps the carriage hits as it rolls through the road. And then you remember that this is all from people standing around doing this by hand for weeks on end and it’s perfect. These tiny things are what make a handcrafted animation infinitely more impressive. It’s the love and labor of the people behind them. And if they’ve done their jobs right, most won’t even notice because it all functions to make the story more engaging.
Missing Link joins the rest of Laika’s output in showing us that the truth behind myths and legends is often more interesting and strange than the myths themselves, and more importantly, require more empathy to get it right. For all its faults, I can’t help but love the film all the more.
Missing Link opens in Philly theaters today.