Since their debut with the animated classic ‘Coraline’ (2009), Laika have quietly established themselves as one of the most exciting animation houses in the world. Over the course of only four films, they have advanced the art of stop motion with remarkable craftsmanship and an uncompromising dedication to complex characters and storytelling. While other studios get caught up in pop culture or pandering to their audiences, Laika aim to create great films, ones tackling big ideas and built to last the test of time. With their fifth feature ‘Missing Link’, they once again push themselves and the medium to greater heights, resulting in maybe their greatest artistic achievement yet.
Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman, ‘Logan’, ‘Les Misérables’), a would-be explorer in Victorian England, is determined to mark his name in the history books, and stumbles across the perfect opportunity when a mysterious letter leads him to the Sasquatch, hiding in Washington State. The Sasquatch, who Frost calls Mr Link (Zach Galifianakis, ‘A Wrinkle in Time’), is the last of his kind, and asks Lionel to help him reach his only possible family, the Yetis in the Himalayas. The only map to their location is held by Lionel’s old flame, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’), so the three of them set off to find Mr Link a family and Lionel his fame and fortune. The only problem is, Lionel’s rival Lord Piggot-Dunceb (Stephen Fry, 'Gosford Park') and his henchman Stenk (Timothy Olyphant, TV's 'Santa Clarita Diet' and 'Justified') are determined to stop them.
‘Missing Link’ is written and directed by Laika regular Chris Butler (‘ParaNorman’), and his familiarity with the tone and textures of the company’s previous work put him in a great position to stretch them further. There’s an even greater sense of maturity to this film, once again returning to the idea of outsiders trying to find their place within the world through an inclusive and environmentally conscious lens. The offerings to its audience are thoughtful, asking serious questions and offering immediate, gentle answers that appeal to the good in all of us. By not weighing itself down with cheap gags, the narrative and the characters have the room to breathe and develop, making it a far richer emotional experience than most American animated films. That breathing space does catch up with it though, and the rhythm and comedy of the film often feel a little too loose. It lacks a sharpness in its storytelling that, while certainly not robbing it of its emotional or thematic strengths, prevents it from being as wholly a satisfying experience. The comedy in particular is lacking in pop and allows the audience to fall through its gaps of unnecessary stillness and silence. You never quite get caught up in the roll of the film, as much as you desperately want to.
This is the only real flaw in the film however, and in every other respect, ‘Missing Link’ is a consistent marvel. The characters are beautiful creations, with Lionel and Adelina circumnavigating most of the expected romantic and gender clichés for a more playful and mature relationship. Lionel is aware of his hubris and opens himself up to change, mostly prompted by Adelina’s refusal to accept any slight in his behaviour. Mr Link is the film’s most remarkable creation, one where all of the elements that go into making an animated character come together in perfect harmony. Everything about him, from the animation to the writing to Galifianakis’ vocal performance, is gentle and open and honest, and from the minute he appears, you can’t help but fall hopelessly in love with him. His journey is so emotionally clear, to belong somewhere and to know he isn’t alone, and the gorgeous simplicity of the character only makes that emotional journey richer.
Watching ‘Missing Link’ is watching an art form move itself forward, not for the sake of technical achievement but for the sake of great storytelling.
With their previous film ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’, Laika had opened up their visual canvas with startling effect, but the leap with ‘Missing Link’ is monumental. The film not only offers a stunning period recreation, but spans multiple countries and landscapes, all beautifully realised. More so than most animation houses, Laika have found the closest balance between traditional animation craft (in this case, stop motion) and advanced technology, with computer animation to support and enhance the stop motion rather than dominate or dictate it, and allowing the artists to aim for bigger stories on bigger canvases. The animation in ‘Missing Link’ is some of the most spectacular of the last decade, surpassing anything achieved by Disney or Pixar of late, and on par with the cinematic scope of the ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ trilogy. Colour, texture, movement and light burst across the screen, and the degree of specificity in expression and movement in the characters is unlike anything we’ve seen in stop motion, complex and fluid while still reminding you that most of what you are seeing was crafted by human fingers out of clay. Watching ‘Missing Link’ is watching an art form move itself forward, not for the sake of technical achievement but for the sake of great storytelling. In that sense, where Laika and ‘Missing Link’ sit most comfortably is next to a studio like Ghibli, where storytelling, artistry and complex questions about who we are come together as art.
‘Missing Link’ is such a gorgeous film and so close to being a wholly satisfying one that it makes the flaws in its storytelling, comedy and rhythm all the more disappointing. All the pieces are there, and a bit of tightening and sharpening could have made it a slam-dunk. That said, this only feels like a failing next to Laika’s greats like ‘Coraline’. Next to other works of American animation of late though (with the exception of ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ and the ‘Dragon’ films), it stands with confidence as a work of genuine beauty, a heartfelt story of family and acceptance, hope and tolerance, of believing in yourself and in those you care about. At the very least, ‘Missing Link’ is a mighty artistic achievement for this special studio, and a testament to just how immediate and rich stop motion animation can still be.