Stop-motion has been around since nearly the invention of cinema itself, the first usage of the animation technique employed in the 1897 film The Humpty Dumpty Circus. The art of physically manipulating objects, photographing them through a series of tiny incremental changes as a means to express movement, has become incredibly sophisticated in the last century and one Portland-based animation studio can take credit for consistently pushing the medium to new extremes: Laika.
The creative masterminds behind such films as Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika has enjoyed more critical success than box office punching power, each of their films performing modestly but not breaking out into smash hit variety that such dedication to craft ought to bear. All of their productions have received Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature (with Kubo also earning a warranted nod for Best Visual Effects) but none have claimed the top prize and thereby have failed to “breakout” in a traditional sense.
The independent animation studio has become a modern-day equivalent of the little engine that could, posting just enough gains to keep the lights on while churning out animated films that stand defiant to the one-and-done demands of Netflix-era “content”. Laika’s films are worth revisiting for their visual temptations alone, with their best work smugglings in deeper themes that demand further examination and rumination. There is a love of craft baked into every blade of glass in a Laika movie because every detail is hand-crafted, every literal blade of glass shaped by some dedicated artist. If filmmaking is a lost art, it is not lost to Laika and they seem out to prove that fact with every film they make.
Missing Link, Laika’s fifth major release, is a continuation of this dedication to craft, the seamless marriage of stop-motion foregrounds and computer-animated backgrounds make for an eye-popping visual feast tailor-made for audiences to hungrily dig into. With each release, the animation studio tackles some new previously untackleable hurdle, breaking new ground and charging forward into bold new territory and Missing Link is no exception, the level of quality and detail simply immaculate with each and every handmade element of this assemblage.
But quality animation should be no surprise from Laika at this day and age. Instead, Laika makes major pivots in terms of protagonist and plot as Missing Link marks the first of Laika’s efforts that doesn’t focus on a child centerpiece. Instead, Hugh Jackman’s Sir Lionel Frost is our hero, an aristocrat and playboy adventurer keen on induction into a league of fanciful, and pompous, gentlemen who fill the smoky halls of the Optimates Club. As an outsider looking in, Frost is dedicated to proving his worth by discovering new species, be it the Loch Ness Monster or a Sasquatch (voiced by the shaggy Zach Galifianakis) who, luck would have it, just sent him a letter in the mail.
The Victorian-era adventure is buddy comedy by way of road movie, an odd-pair tangle of lost folk trying to find their path forward but looking in the wrong places. The nuts and bolts of Missing Link are perhaps more inspired than the somewhat straight-forward tale of a Sasquatch (under the pseudonym Mr. Link) banding with a prestige-seeking explorer to find company among the Yeti and the fame and fortune that comes with such a discovery. As the turn of phrase states, it’s the journey that carries more weight than the destination and the constant clever turns of Missing Link, which unfold in spectacularly complex but never-too-busy set pieces, such as an Inception-inspired seafaring foot chase, make said journey one to gawk at and be swept away by, as if by tidal wave themselves.
From the luscious forests of Olympic-foothills of Washington to the tops of snowy peaks in Shangri-La, Missing Link boasts a delectable vintage of spellbinding setting, ever the more charming in handcrafted detail. From a technical aspect, this movie just kicks. Director Chris Butler (ParaNorman) brings a vividness to each shot that would overwhelm a shakier story but, in this case, proves a fitting complement of form and function in harmony. The voice cast, which also includes the ever-reliable Zoe Saldana and Timothy Olyphant as a weaselly bounty hunter, crams a big amount of personality and lifeblood into these pint-sized figurines; the score from Carter Burwell (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) gives an old-timey serial adventure quality a fresh coat of paint; even the tiny costume design from Deborah Cook is both period-appropriate and giddily silly, just another lush detail worthy of note.
What makes Missing Link such a surefire win for families is its ability to charm the wee ones with scatological asides while also offering adults in the audience a blast of rather, well, adult material. There is a fair share of gun violence and some frankly bleak instances of death, which may make the hesitant mother even moreso hesitant about bringing the younger of tots to check this one out, but with the staggeringly captivating animation, oft-winning physical gags, near-constant barrage of awkward humor, and big ole heart on the sleeve, it’s hard to miss with Missing Link.
CONCLUSION: Though not resting with the top-tier Laika efforts, ‘Missing Link’ is breathtaking proof about the evils of consolidating style: in the age of selfsame CGI-animation, something this devilishly detailed bears fruit of singularly unique beauty. Kids and adults alike will swoon.
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