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‘Missing Link’ aims for more straightforward tale than predecessors

April 20, 2019

Laika Animation Studios has been quietly cranking out some of the industry’s most lush, innovative animation for the past decade. In 2009, they crafted the hauntingly captivating “Coraline” and followed it with the vibrantly retro “ParaNorman” and an altogether unique masterpiece, “Kubo and the Two Strings.” 

Even their stumble, 2014’s “The Boxtrolls,” can be faulted for many things, but not for its aspirations. The studio’s latest, “Missing Link” may aim for a more straightforward tale than its predecessors, but it continues breathing new life into an underappreciated aspect of animation, and it produces an artistry that demonstrates a painstaking love of the craft. 

Using a root of stop-motion animation (dressed up with computer-generated flourishes), “Link” aims predominantly to entertain, telling a decidedly simple tale of a Victorian-era adventurer who is desperate to gain admittance into a society of high-falutin’ explorers by making a high-profile discovery. 

Hugh Jackman voices Sir Lionel Frost, a square-jawed (actually, it’s more triangular, but you get the point) searcher of legendary beasts. The film’s wonderfully slapstick opening has Frost and his put-upon ward attempting to take down the Loch Ness Monster. When the trip fails to produce photographic proof, he once again sets out to discover the long-rumored Sasquatch. 

His quest takes him to the Pacific Northwest where he stumbles upon this “Missing Link,” discovering that it’s quite a well-mannered creature, capable of speaking perfect English (thanks to a refreshingly restrained Zach Galifianakis). All Link wants is to be reunited with his kind, which he thinks may dwell in the Himalayas, where they’re also known as Yeti. 

Frost remains true to his word, and places the value of the creature’s need to be with its kind over the gain he would personally receive if he were to capture him and take him back to civilization. Their travels connect them with a rich widow and Frost’s former girlfriend Adelina Fortnight (voiced by Zoe Saldana), and a sleazy mercenary (voiced by Timothy Olyphant), who aims to take the Sasquatch for personal gain. 

There are no real narrative surprises within “Link,” but the animation is so textured, and the humor so heartfelt, that it’s easy to sink into its world. Stop-motion animation has a mass, texture and gravity that even the most cutting-edge CGI has yet to replicate. It’s akin to the childhood activity of actually playing with dolls (or action figures), rather than merely watching them on television.

And Laika has once again demonstrated the artistic boundaries of this medium. Director Chris Butler has spent the last seven years dedicated to the project (since helming “ParaNorman”), and that shows throughout. And if you thought Marvel was the leader in mid-credit bonus scenes, hang out for those in “Link,” which provide viewers a peek at just how they pull off the painstaking process. 

While it’s easy to bask in the visuals, Laika is not afraid to look into the deeper meanings of its tales, tackling colonialism, isolationism, game-hunting vs. conservationism, and exploration vs. conquering. This does not impede the story, but adds to its rewatchability, and adds another film to Laika’s catalog of fascinating animation that feels at once unique and nostalgic. 

  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society and is lead entertainment writer for Influx Magazine. Email him at filmrob@gmail.com.