Synopsis – Mr. Link recruits explorer Sir Lionel Frost to help find his long-lost relatives in the fabled valley of Shangri-La. Along with adventurer Adelina Fortnight, this trio of explorers travel the world to help their new friend.
My Take – While Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar and DreamWorks continue to reap in the benefits of their franchises resulting in excessive box office earnings, American stop-motion animation studio, Laika, has been quickly building up a strong reputation for themselves at-least in matter of quality.
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, proving themselves as masters of their painstaking Claymation craft, with ambitions that are both modest and mighty. I
t is the same versatility that took the Oregon-based company from horror (Coraline & ParaNorman) to Asian mysticism (Kubo & the Two Strings) to trolls in boxes (Boxtrolls) now brings their attention to Victorian England, for a ripping yarn adventure across the seas and skies. 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, they have once again pushed themselves and the medium to greater heights, resulting in maybe their greatest artistic achievement yet.
Yes, this film, written and directed by Chris Butler (ParaNorman) is a one of the best and most original animated films I have ever seen. And it might also be the studio’s most ambitious film yet, and that fact is visible in every frame. Its latest story covers more ground both literally and figuratively, sending its characters all over the globe, featuring thousands of distinct facial expressions, and touching upon surprisingly sharp themes of colonialism and prejudice.
It reminded me of a really exciting adventure film mixed in with a little of Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes and other elements from a Western. Even though those influences are there, the film manages to do its own thing. It doesn’t matter what age you are, everybody can enjoy this wonderful film.
The story follows Sir Lionel Frost (voice of Hugh Jackman), a would-be explorer in Victorian England, who is determined to mark his name in the history books. But his last few adventures haven’t exactly gone according to plan, as his latest encounter with the Loch Ness Monster ends with his photographic evidence being destroyed. All Lionel wants is to get himself the recognition to mark his entry into in the reputed adventurer’s club, but unfortunately for him, they end up scoffing at his proposals as their leader, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (voice of Stephen Fry), is more concerned with exploits that don’t change the doings of their society. After all, in a time where fads like electricity and suffrage are taking over, the Lord Piggot-Duncebys of the world have spots to keep.
However opportunity comes knocking when Lionel receives a letter from somebody in the Washington, who’s not only seen a Sasquatch but identifies where Frost can as well, hence, the roguish adventurer takes off for the developing United States in hopes of cementing his claim as an adventurer for all time. Turns out that it was the Sasquatch (voice of Zach Galifianakis), who had himself send the letter, as he happens to be the last of his kind and seeks Lionel’s help to reach his only possible family, the Yetis in the Himalayas.
A task which won’t be easy, as Adelina Fortnight (voice of Zoe Saldana), Frost’s ex-lover and the widow of a former compatriot, refuses to let Frost use a map to the secret home of the Yetis, left to her without her being involved. While Piggot-Dunceby worried that Lionel might succeed hires Willard Stenk (voice of Timothy Olyphant) to kill both Frost and the Sasquatch before he can provide proof. Thus begins an adventure which includes stealing a map from Frost’s former lover, confrontations with a deadly bounty hunter and a granny with a chicken on her head.
Granted, it’s a fairly basic plot and one that we’ve seen from a lot of adventure films before, and there are some pacing hiccups as the characters jump around the globe, but just like most great adventure films its real strength comes more from the charm of the characters and the incredible scenery. Any image from the film, whether it’s a still or a clip, is impossible to look away from.
The level of detail is staggering, from the slight blush in Mr. Link’s cheeks, to the way the sunlight almost filters through Lionel’s nose, to the sheen on individual strands of Adelina’s hair. From the gorgeous wilderness of the old west to the close confines of an old ocean liner the films packed full of fantastic visual eye candy.
Considering the effort that has to go into every shot, is impressive to the point of feeling daunting. It’s filled with colorful characters, innovative creature design, and some of the most spectacular sets in Laika’s history.
But while the film conjures several gorgeous landscapes, the film also stands out as a lovely fable about the limits of Frost’s assiduousness, and the complications caused by his sense of superiority. The film is written and directed by Laika regular Chris Butler, and his familiarity with the tone and textures of the company’s previous work put him in a great position to stretch them further.
While director Butler’s screenplay leans on kid-friendlier material at times, at others the film’s fish-out-of-water premise allows Galifianakis, Jackman, and Saldana to volley quips, comebacks, and even the odd entendre at one another, with the abandon of a good screwball comedy. There’s also a 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. The film won me over with the lessons that director Butler tries to impart about the limits of Frost’s perspective, and with the way Frost’s bond with Susan becomes the first genuinely respectful relationship in his life.
Animated films usually follow a romantic or fairy-tale arc, but this one communicates far more with a smaller scope. Perhaps that’s deliberate, a counterbalance to the visual excitement. The story feels simple, even a little slight: the real adventure was inside them all along! But when you have such strong, disarming character work; such clever, subtle nods to the crimes of colonialism and old world conservatism; and such gorgeous art direction, the kind that swells the heart and nourishes the soul. Amid the noisy, epic action of most kid-oriented features, this film’s story is clear and effective: a sweet-hearted narrative of how friendship can broaden one’s horizons.
Though the film isn’t without its flaws, for example its pacing issues in the second act, it’s still a compelling piece of work, attempting things on a scale that feels monumental — not only as a next step for Laika’s growth, but for the field of stop-motion animation on the whole.
As one would expect, the film’s charisma is helped no end by the vocal performances, with Hugh Jackman bringing in his charming bravado with an edge of elitist arrogance, Zach Galifianakis being his usual guileless giddiness to his character making him very relatable, and Zoe Saldana being the dominant voice of reason between the two. In supporting turns, Stephen Fry, Timothy Olyphant, Matt Lucas, David Walliams, Amrita Acharia, Ching Valdes Aran, and Emma Thompson are also impressive. On the whole, ‘Missing Link’ is a charming family film uplifted by its lovable themes and fantastic animation.
Directed – Chris Butler
Rated – PG
Run Time – 94 minutes