LAIKA is one of the only movie studios in the world dedicated to stop-motion animation, keeping the art form alive with whimsical tales like Coraline, ParaNorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings. Their latest offering, Missing Link, pushes the boundaries of the hand-crafted medium in spectacular ways, though the story at the heart of it doesn’t live up to the high standard of the animation itself.
A slightly less manic than usual Zach Galifianakis voices Mr. Link, an adorably wide-eyed and charming iteration of the eight-foot-tall Sasquatch/Bigfoot from the Pacific Northwest, who strikes a deal with a debonair but self-serving adventurer and researcher of mythical beasts called Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman, putting on his poshest British accent in his arsenal). Mr. Link believes there are more of his kind living halfway across the world in the legendary valley of Shangri-La, and Frost agrees to escort him there so long as he’s allowed to be the first man to introduce the shaggy giant to the world, which would in turn earn him membership into the stuffy Optimates Club, a collective of pompous hunters and explorers who congregate in an exclusive mansion in Victorian-era London.
The story is a globetrotting affair that darts from England, to the Pacific Northwest, down to Santa Ana California (where they meet the fearless Adelina Fortnight, voiced by Zoe Saldana), and finally to the Himalayas, though the film feels like more of a jaunt than a long journey. The 95-minute runtime actually feels too short—while the themes of identity, valor, and chosen family ring true, they aren’t explored thoroughly enough or in a unique way. Also, the characters are fantastic, but would have been nice to see the filmmakers emphasize the touristic elements of the story and give us more time watching the trio exploring picturesque landscapes and locales.
Though the story does feel overly pruned, what’s there is deeply felt and, more importantly, drop-dead gorgeous. It’s always a delight getting whisked away to the whimsical worlds LAIKA concocts in their Portland warehouse, and Missing Link’s natural environments and richly detailed interiors are as inspired and eye-popping as any of their previous works. The movie opens with a showstopping tussle between Frost and the Loch Ness Monster that showcases fluid animation, dynamic camera movements, and some of the most dazzling water effects you’ll see in any animated movie, period.
It’s fun to get lost in all of the little details the animators and designers took great care in crafting, like the way Mr. Link’s auburn fur bobs as he walks, or the way the sunlight looks like it’s cast from millions of miles away as opposed to from a light bulb mere feet away in a studio. The film isn’t a Herzogian ode to nature in the way Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur was, but the sheer majesty of the outdoor environments sort of makes you wish it was.
What’s outstanding about the film’s cast of characters is that they’re so wonderfully idiosyncratic, like the grumpy Himalayan grandma who’s oblivious to the chicken perpetually perched on her head or the scarred, crooked-toothed assassin hired to off Frost. Other than the sincere but slightly rote storytelling, every inch of this film feels unique and special.
Galifianakis brings a surprising measure of tenderness to Mr. Link, who is just about as lovable a character as you could ask for. His desire to find a place where he belongs is deeply relatable, and his incapacity for sarcasm and figures of speech is endearingly funny. Frost is less layered and has an inelegantly handled change of heart in the third act, but Jackman’s energy and charisma smooth out some of the script’s rough spots. Saldana is less memorable (her Spanish accent isn’t nearly as convincing as Jackman’s), though some of the supporting cast, like Stephen Fry and Timothy Olyphant, who play the film’s main villains, and Emma Thompson, who plays a cold-hearted yeti matriarch, bring plenty of personality to the table.
Missing Link doesn’t have the emotional resonance of LAIKA’s best work but showcases some of the most imaginative and enchanting imagery you’re likely to see in any movie this year, and while the story is a little lean, the unlikely duo of Frost and Link leave a lasting impression.