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.