'Missing Link' Review: Another Stop-Motion Miracle From Laika

Like the other films from Laika Animation Studios, Missing Link is a breath of fresh air. Laika's films are all welcome reminders of the value and beauty of art made by hand. The attention to every last detail in a given shot for stop-motion animation is staggering; by that metric, Missing Link is the studio's most visually accomplished and ambitious film to date. Though its story isn't as emotionally complex or deep as that of either Kubo and the Two Strings or ParaNorman, Missing Link is a charming, fast-paced adventure that serves as both a showcase for a mix of slapstick and verbal wit, and for the studio's textured and beautiful animation.Set in the Victorian Era, Missing Link starts with Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman), a British adventurer who desperately wants to be accepted by a London club of so-called "Great Men". Unfortunately, they treat his belief in myths like the Loch Ness Monster as nonsense, making him want to prove himself all the more, at the expense of alienating everyone around him. Soon, Frost is inspired by a letter to discover the Sasquatch in the Pacific Northwest, shocked to find that said monster not only exists, but speaks perfect English (as voiced by Zach Galifianakis). The now-named Mr. Link wants to go on a quest of his own to find his family, with Frost as his guide and plenty of ruthless killers on their path.What's most initially striking about Missing Link is twofold. First, the story (written by the film's director, Chris Butler, who also directed ParaNorman) feels more in line with the style of storytelling evinced by Pixar. Sir Frost and Mr. Link are a classic mismatched duo like Woody and Buzz, or Mike and Sulley, or Marlin and Dory. Past Laika efforts aren't typically of the buddy-movie variety, thus putting this film in a more unexpected light.And the episodic, road-trip-style nature of their journey falls in line with plenty of Pixar films as well, a fairly sharp difference from moodier films like Coraline or even the loopy 2014 effort The Boxtrolls. All told, Missing Link lacks the sharp and fairly mature ways in which Laika's previous efforts humanize even their antagonists to the point where you garner extreme sympathy for them despite their previously nasty deeds. The bad guys here are irredeemably so, and no attempt is made to make you think otherwise. Sir Frost, notably, has an arc in which he learns to be less of a self-centered cad. What's most remarkable about our protagonist, then, is that he's fairly unlikable at the start, far more so than other modern animated heroes.The other striking element about Missing Link is its animation. Laika has never shied away from pushing the limits of stop-motion animation, and Missing Link is no different. Where most of their other films stay within a specific place, the travelogue nature of this new film means we travel everywhere from Washington State to London to the Himalayas, each new locale offering the Laika animators another chance to show off. Missing Link is presented in a 2.35:1 widescreen ratio, enabling Butler and the animation team a number of chances to showcase lushly designed widescreen vistas.The blending of stop-motion animation, computer-animated backgrounds, and handmade props (as briefly seen in a mid-credits behind-the-scene shot) is truly incredible to behold. Laika's only released five films in the last 10 years, and when you see how much hard work goes on behind the scenes, it's kind of ridiculous that they've even accomplished this much. We can only be glad they've kept pushing themselves.Within these various locales, where Missing Link excels is in its humor. Galifianakis, whose enthusiastic voice makes for a nice contrast with the physically imposing Mr. LInk, is particularly funny as a guileless, overgrown child who's unable to grasp figures of speech. (An early would-be heist scene is especially funny, heightened by Mr. Link's inability to throw ropes correctly, climb walls, pick up safes, etc.) Jackman has a little bit less to work with, but is suitably stolid and selfish as Sir Frost. And Deadwood fans may get a kick out of the presence of Timothy Olyphant, as an American adventurer sent to thwart Sir Frost, at least because his baddie first shows up in a town straight out of the Wild West.Missing Link is a fascinating, beautifully colorful spectacle, epic in scope even if not in length. From a storytelling standpoint, the most interesting aspect is how Laika's team has seemingly gone back to one of its past stories for some inspiration. Sir Lionel Frost's against-all-odds attempt to be included into a hoity-toity club for gruff old white men is awfully similar to the machinations of the villain in The Boxtrolls, who badly wants to be accepted by the gruff old white men who run the town in that film. That parallel aside, Missing Link doesn't have the same depth as Laika's very best. Yet this film extends Laika's winning streak to five out of five; they haven't made anything less than a rousing, entertaining film to date./Film Rating: 8 out of 10