Review: Missing Link

Distributor: United Artists Releasing

Director: Chris Butler

Writer: Chris Butler

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, David Walliams, Timothy Olyphant, Matt Lucas, Amrita Acharia, Zach Galifianakis

Genre: Adventure

Rating: PG

Our friends at Laika Studios are really doing the Lord’s work in many ways. The archaic and rich practice of stop-motion animation is a discipline that was regarded as being just as dead in the animated feature film industry as traditional hand-drawn animation was. The fact that we still consistently get such works in the Western world is a marvel in and of itself. Even at the height of the medium’s popularity, stop-motion still couldn’t match the success of Disney’s tried and true pencil and paper approach. 

And yet, in our post-Shrek world, Corpse Bride, Shaun the Sheep, and Kubo and the Two Strings manage to get released and become critical successes while Disney is now exclusively doing CGI work. The latest anomaly in this pattern of events is Missing Link, the first Laika film to not be distributed by Focus Features. At first, I was skeptical of how much of an artistic success this would be, but made the determination not to pre-emptively pass judgement this time around. Doing so really dulls rather than sharpens the intellect, and prevents one from valuable discoveries.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Mostly gun violence, since there’s an assassin after Sir Lionel and Susan; later, Adelina brings her own weapons to fight back. Pub brawl includes guns, fists, and Susan’s super strength, which makes people crash through walls. Several pursuits. Physical comedy: property destruction, falls, minor injuries–e.g., Susan running through a wall, pushing people through buildings, Sir Lionel hitting instead of clearing a wall. A grandmother is threatened at gunpoint, her infant grandchild also. A character is accidentally pushed and nearly falls off a boat. A few people die, including one who’s more lackey than villain. Sir Lionel, Susan, and Adelina are pursued with spears, later thrown in a pit that’s seemingly impossible to escape. Loch Ness monster starts to swallow a man but doesn’t kill him.

Language/Crude Humor: “Sucks,” “bugger,” “Oh God.” A character is interrupted saying, “this cave smells like sh…”

Sexual Content: Flirting between Lionel and Adelina, including a near kiss. While walking through a Western town, a woman throws Sir Lionel a kiss from a window; it makes her seem like a prostitute, but that will likely go over kids’ heads. A moment later, a burly male prisoner also blows a kiss. A newspaper headline says of Sir Lionel: “Randy Aristocrat Caught In Flagrante with Russian Ballerina.”

Drug/Alcohol Use: Gentlemen’s club offers adventuring men a sanctuary where they can talk, smoke, and drink. Adults drink beer at a saloon.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: Classism and hints of colonial oppression.

Positive Content:  Positive messages about friendship, identity, partnership. Shows why it’s dangerous to want to preserve status quo and prevent change at all costs. Encourages people to put relationships, connections above aggrandizement and other selfish goals. Empathy, teamwork are prominent themes.

Sir Lionel is a courageous adventurer. He’s determined but also self-serving and glory-seeking. “Susan” is gentle, kind, searching for connection. Adelina is fearless and brave. She helps Lionel and Susan, and encourages Lionel to see how his actions affect others. She’s far from the helpless “damsel in distress” type expected in Victorian-era/westward-expansion-set stories.

Review

I think one of the saddest encounters a reviewer can have is with a film that demonstrates genuine heart, excellence, and mastery of its discipline with no hint that it would find a profitable audience. Sure, this is commonplace with the so-called “indie film” circuit, where mass commercial success is seen as either a secondary or tertiary concern (or sometimes even as something to avoid), but thinking that any mainstream animation studio would adopt that somewhat pretentious attitude is rather bizarre. Animation is an expensive practice, and there are few who would allow themselves to suffer financial damage for its sake.

I’m not complaining, of course, but color me concerned for the future of Laika Studios, a fledgling flagship champion for the obscure output of animated obfuscation that is stop-motion. This cabal of daredevil storytellers have no more than five feature productions to their name and have been through more ups and downs in their oeuvre than most other business entities go through in their whole lifetimes. Every time I see a new release from this house, the image of a string being drawn more and more taut comes to mind. But then I allow myself some reprieve from the anxiety to at least try to enjoy the show.

Granted, the success rate is sporadic, as I’ve already hinted. With that said, the worth of the achievements far outweighs the costs as far as my artistic interests are concerned. With the growing globalization of more advanced technologies, I am far from the first or the only one to bemoan the dearth of traditional and practical executions in filmmaking for a number of reasons both pragmatic and artistic. Of course, the rustic charm of concrete handmade objects being given moving life in actual space is a main selling point of stop-motion, but it is very much a niche discipline that’s hard to sell to executives. At the same time, practical effects and approaches do often provide more time and cost effective solutions to the very things that CGI is often used (read: OVERused) to accomplish. 

To give but one example, why bother with expensive particle rendering software to get a cascade of falling leaves when you can simply get some leaves and drop them in front of the camera? This and many other reasons is why I’m ecstatic that the folks at Laika are serving as a constant reminder to the rest of the world that as we continue to refine and improve upon the more robust and advanced tools and techniques of the trade, let us not neglect those times when the old-fashioned methods are the most fortuitous approach.

On that note, what to make of Laika’s latest feature, Missing Link? At first glance, I must confess that I was, at best, mostly nonplussed at what was on offer here. While the basic premise of the story (“What if Bigfoot were to live among civilized high-class society?”) was quirky enough to warrant the unique touch that Laika is known for, I really saw little here to win my attention, especially considering the predecessors. From trailers and previews, Missing Link largely seemed to lack many of the features of Laika’s previous releases that earned them a special place in my regard. It didn’t seem to have the bombast and multidimensionality of ParaNorman, the heart and emotional weight of Kubo and the Two Strings, or even the aesthetic distinctiveness of Coraline. It appeared to have the greatest likeness to The Boxtrolls in many ways, and that is certainly not a good sign.

The parallels between that last title and Missing Link are largely superficial, with both taking place in some fantastical reimagining of a vaguely Victorian England setting and great pains being taken to be accepted by an ostensible “higher class of people” being a central character motive. From there, the two diverge quite sharply as Missing Link pushes the ambition for social acceptance from higher society in two different directions simultaneously. 

We are first introduced to an ambitious cryptid hunter named Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) while he is in the midst of securing proof of the existence of the Loch Ness Monster.  Here, these creatures do in fact exist, but a particular society of “great men” are impenetrably dismissive of such legends. Frost claims that once he proves the reality of some great mythical beast, he will finally be accepted into the clique, which begs the question of how exactly the other members were accepted. The head of the society, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (a vigorous Stephen Fry), claims that they “shaped the world”, which can entail everything from discovering the New World to inventing the wireless radio, so the terms of admission are rather unclear. 

In fact, much of is used to define these characters is unclear. Classism is a major theme here, and what’s a bit ironic is that Lord Frost has one key similarity to the members of the society: he is quite dismissive of the well-being of the less acculturated helper under his wing. The opening sequence has him basically feeding his underling, Lemuel Lint (David Walliams), to Nessie in order to acquire photographic evidence. When Lord Piggot-Dunceby and the other “great men” are introduced, we see them literally using their servants and helping hands as furniture and stationary equipment of various sorts. There’s no ambiguity about what we’re to make of them.

While Lord Frost has the path for his goals made clear but directionless, the deuterogamist is introduced in a comically endearing way.  Following the directions of an anonymous letter, Frost and the Sasquatch (a charming Zach Galifianakis) are introduced and make a mutually beneficial pact. In praise of writer-director Chris Butler’s screenplay, a clever bit of matching insight is drawn between the two players in that they are both ultimately seeking acceptance into a more prestigious community of what they believe to be “their kind”. Frost is more motivated by egotistical desire for status, and the Sasquath (later named “Susan”) is more aimed at curing his loneliness, but the lesson of self-acceptance and resistance to peer pressure is what comes into full display in due time.

While aesthetically, Missing Link is without much of what made many of Laika’s previous outings so easily identifiable, where production values are concerned, no corner has been cut. The handmade scenery of smoking cities, lush jungles, open seas, and ancient ruins are constructed, lit, and rendered with the same impeccable taste and impressive detail that we’ve come to expect from these artisans. The script, while written with a surprising level of maturity and panache, has very little in the way of anything that would be appreciated by the younger viewers in the crowd. A few lines made me laugh (“Those people we don’t want here are leaving! Force them to stay!”), but I wasn’t surprised when I saw the children about me in the theater fussing noisily in their seats. The film grabbed my attention as an aficionado of animation, but not theirs, sadly.

While the filmmakers can hardly be blamed for missing their demographic mark, there are some blights in their execution that deserve notice. A supposedly significant third player in this mystery is Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), a brazen widow and Lord Frost’s old flame. She joins the long list of ostensibly dynamic and interesting Strong Independent WomenTM who don’t really have much of reason to be here or do very much at all (a trend our friends at the now defunct site Dissolve affectionately labeled “Trinity Syndrome”).

The most implausible moment of the whole film takes place during a high stakes climatic sequence that really undid so many of the established rules of the world that I was completely taken out of the experience during the whole run of it. It’s one of those moments about which I openly wonder how anyone involved with the production didn’t say aloud “Isn’t it clear that this isn’t working?”

Unlike Pixar, not everything from Laika has to be a gem in all areas to earn our respect, because in many ways, their very existence is a gem. Even overall failures like The Boxtrolls are still remarkable even in how they miss the mark. Missing Link is far from a failure, but also a bit of a ways from the studio’s last few achievements. A big part of me wishes that CEO Travis McKnight would recant his vow to never allow the studio to make a sequel, since I think there’s real material to work with beyond the credits in a few of their releases, including this one. At the same time, I’d rather avoid something like Incredibles 2 than pursue something like Toy Story 2 unless the inspiration for it was actually there.

Positives

+ Funny + Excellently written + Remarkably believable performances + Strong production values + Sophisticated

Negatives

- Misses its audience - Underdeveloped side characters - Implausible climax

The Bottom Line

Your kids may not like it very much, but they really should.

 

8.2

Tyrone Barnes

Leave a Reply