Missing Link

Cast: (voiced by) Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, David Walliams, Timothy Olyphant, Matt Lucas, Amrita Acharia, Zach Galifianakis

Director: Chris Butler

Writer: Chris Butler


Laika doesn’t get nearly enough credit for what they do. When Disney Animation chose to abandon the traditional hand-drawn style for their theatrical releases in favour of the 3D, computer-rendered form of animation that Pixar, DreamWorks, Illumination and several more favour today, it marked a key turning point in the history of the craft. While the practice still lives on in some form at Disney, most recently in Mary Poppins Returns, the transition more or less confirmed that the old ways had died and that CGI was the new normal for modern animation. With so many studios favouring the form however, the films that they make, whether good or bad, can often feel quite samey in their video game aesthetics. This is what makes Laika, a studio that continues to employ the meticulous and distinct practice of stop-motion in their films (along with Aardman Animations), stand out all the more. It’s a form that requires thousands of hours of painstaking work and demands the kind of attention to detail and accomplished skill that all forms of handicraft demand. It isn’t a question of which format looks better or is more difficult to master, but with the knowledge of how much care and labour go into their creation and how uniquely physical such films as Coraline, ParaNorman and Kubo and the Two Strings look in this contemporary digital age, one cannot help but be awed by Laika’s output.

Their latest offering tells the story of Sir Lionel Frost, a Victorian explorer who travels the world in search of mythical beasts such as the Loch Ness Monster, which he encounters in the opening scene. Lionel is revealed to be an outlier to his 19th century peers, an adventurer whose goal isn’t to track and hunt animals for sport but to find these strange, legendary creatures and learn from them so that he might unlock the mysteries of the world. This doesn’t mean that Lionel isn’t a man of his time however, nor is he a saint. He is still shown to be a rather chauvinistic and egotistical man who isn’t above using others to serve his own ends and can be dreadfully immature when things don’t go his way. Things kick off when Lionel receives a letter from the United States telling of an enormous, hairy creature lurking in the woodlands of the Pacific Northwest. Lionel wastes not a second in heading straight there and it isn’t long before he encounters the Sasquatch himself. Mr. Link, as Lionel calls him at first, turns out to be a being of human-level intellect who learned English by observing humans and wrote the letter that brought the English explorer to him. Link, having recently learnt of the Yetis and believing them to be his distant relatives, asks Lionel for his help in travelling to the Himalayas and finding their hidden city so that he might finally be with his own people.

Thus Lionel and Susan, which is the name that the creature adopts (despite being voiced by Zach Galifianakis, the Bigfoot’s gender is an amusing source of some ambiguity), set off on a quest that leads them to all kinds of exotic locations. They first head to New Mexico where fiery Adelina Fortnight, an old flame of Lionel’s, holds the map they need to find their destination. She of course ends up joining them and so off they go on an ocean liner bound for Southeast Asia where they will then treck to the Himalayas in search of the secret Yeti sanctuary. Dogging them is the bloodthirsty Willard Stenk, a bounty hunter hired by Lord Piggot-Duncaby, the irrepressibly stuck-up president of an exclusive explorer’s society that Lionel longs to join. The main focus of the film throughout is the relationship between Lionel and Susan who find that despite the pomposity of the former and the witlessness of the latter (Susan is, for example, wont to takes things literally as when Lionel asks him to throw a rope over the wall he plans to climb), they make a pretty good team. The most enjoyable part of the film is watching the odd couple wind up in all manner of outlandish scrapes, stumbling their way out, and getting confused with each other at every turn through miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Missing Link, as directed by Laika regular Chris Butler, is less Kubo and the Two Strings this time and more Wallace & Gromit. The action is less pronounced, the stakes aren’t as critical and the tone is more tongue-in-cheek. While the fight scenes that do take place are inventively staged and great fun to watch, the film is far more interested in enjoying the journey as it unfolds and playing around with the characters along the way. This takes place in a time before there were planes and automobiles and so it is appropriate that the film never feels like it needs to rush things along so we can get to the endpoint that little bit sooner. We instead get to enjoy each splendidly designed setting and revel in their varying qualities and atmospheres at a pleasantly relaxed pace, allowing us to appreciate all the more the breadth of their voyage how animated each location feels. As a result, the film never feels like it’s trying too hard to keep things moving and hold our attention. The whole thing feels perfectly at ease with itself, never once resorting to eye-rollingly self-aware winks to the audience or out-of-place pop culture references, as if the children watching couldn’t appreciate an earnest, straightforward adventure such as this.

Laika demonstrates once again the breathtaking possibilities of stop-motion animation, a tradition that has been around for as long as cinema, with set-piece after set-piece featuring intricate detail, resplendent colours and wonderfully designed models, all of them lovingly crafted and positioned by hand. During the end-credits there’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse of all the work that went into accomplishing this one sweeping shot of Lionel, Susan and Adelina riding on the back of an elephant through an Indian jungle. Through an engaging time lapse we get see all the effort that went into moving each little detail, not just on the main characters as they traverse through the area but also the shuffling leaves in the greenery and the scrambling wildlife all around them so that the world they all inhabit might feel as rich and lived-in as our own. The only digital effect in the whole shot is the green-screened mountain range in the background. It all makes for a film that feels utterly immersive, as if the children in the audience were watching figures they could have built themselves out of papier-mâché and paint come to life and inhabit the world they conjured in their imaginations. Missing Link doesn’t reinvent the wheel nor are its themes as deep or profound as those in Kubo, but what it does do – create an exquisite world, present some delightful characters, and give the audience a good old time – it does well.

★★★★

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Kubo and the Two Strings

Cast: (voiced by) Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Matthew McConaughey

Director: Travis Knight

Writers: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler


American animated movies at their best can be smart, creative and enthralling, but they don’t often treat their audience with the maturity and seriousness that Studio Ghibli’s movies do. This is one of the qualities that I found to be the most impressive in Kubo and the Two Strings, a movie that is absolutely teeming with Ghibli’s influence. As well as being smart, creative and enthralling, Kubo is subtle, complex and poetic. It can be joyful and light-hearted in some moments and then dark and frightening in others. It is a grand, epic adventure but it is also an intimate, bittersweet story. This movie offers Western children an illuminating insight into an entirely different culture while still depicting a story that they can identify as being classically universal: the hero’s journey. I am always astounded when a film can accomplish so many different things at once and can appeal to a great variety of people. Kubo and the Two Strings astounded me.

In ancient Japan Kubo, a one-eyed boy living in a cave with his ill mother, spends his days in the nearby village where he magically manipulates pieces of paper into origami shapes to tell stories. These stories he tells are those of his late father, the legendary samurai warrior Hanzo. Kubo must however leave as soon as the sun starts to set for if he ever stays outside at night, his grandfather the Moon King will find him and come to take his remaining eye. While attending a ceremony where he hopes to speak to his father’s spirit, Kubo stays outside for too long and is found and chased by his mother’s Sisters. Kubo’s mother uses her remaining magic to send Kubo away while she stays behind to fend off the Sisters. Kubo awakens in a desolate place where his only companions are Monkey, a wooden charm brought to life by his mother’s magic, and Beetle, Hanzo’s samurai apprentice. With their help Kubo must find his father’s lost weapon and armour and use them to defeat the Moon King.

The film throws a lot of weighty material at children but trusts that they are able to handle it and refrains from patronising them. There is on one level an epic quest taking place that takes Kubo to a great many places, both wonderful and scary. The threats he faces are both great (like the colossal skeleton) and menacing (like the chillingly designed Sisters), the obstacles he must overcome are immense and the lessons he must learn are difficult. Thus we also get a deep, profound story of love and loss. With his father gone and his mother slowly fading away, Kubo has never really known what it is to have a family. The loneliness he feels is heartrending in its melancholy, but that makes his strong resilience all the more admirable. He finds this strength not only through his companions but also through the stories of his mother and father. Kubo and the Two Strings is a testament to the power of stories and their capacity to move us, bind us and preserve us.

Laika has done much impressive work in stop-motion animation before in films like Coraline and The Boxtrolls, but Kubo outdoes them all. The beautiful colours, the incredible designs and the masterful craftsmanship, these are all employed to astonishing effect in this visually breathtaking film. Kubo warns us on the outset not to blink and I tried my hardest to comply for fear of missing a second of the spectacle. Complementing the visuals is Dario Marianelli’s stunning, expressive score, which truly shines in the sequences that accompany Kubo’s stories as he plucks his shamisen. The voicework in this film is also splendid. Parkinson turns in the right kind of childish determination as Kubo, Theron is sublime as his dedicated, no-nonsense guardian and Mara brings a cold detachment to her role as the Sisters. McConaughey also brings some welcome goofiness to the film but the light-hearted banter between Beetle and Monkey can sometimes be out of place and corny.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a marvellous achievement in modern animation. I can only imagine the number of hours it must have taken to create these visuals in all of their splendour and painstaking detail. The film’s merits are far more than technical though; Kubo boasts of incredible action, compelling characters and strong emotional resonance. The film will astonish the children just as much as it will move the adults. The story it tells is a bold one that shows how cruel and vicious the world can be as Kubo struggles with the pains of loss, loneliness, guilt, doubt and vulnerability. It is also a story that showcases the redemptive and commemorative powers of storytelling, leading to a deeply profound ending. After some of the stupendous works that have been produced over the past five or so years, the standard for children’s animation has never been higher. Kubo and the Two Strings triumphantly exceeds those standards is to be sure one of the finest films I’ve seen this year.

★★★★★