Film reviews and more since 2009

Missing Link (2019) review

Dir. Chris Butler

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

Narratively speaking, Missing Link doesn’t give one a lot to chew on, especially when you consider its themes of selflessness can be summed up in about a sentence. Where this picture shines is in its visual depth and detail, especially in contrast to its counterparts, many of which feel comparatively weightless. Furthermore, it has a Wallace & Gromit sensibility with its dry humor and charming characters that makes it yet another impressive entry in Laika’s beloved, niche catalog that I presume will age quite gracefully.

For those unfamiliar, Laika is a studio that’s been active since the late aughts, revitalizing traditional, stop-motion animation films. Owned by Nike co-founder Phil Knight and run by his son Travis, Laika has produced a variety of intriguing features, such as the spooky ParaNorman and the dense and mythical Kubo and the Two Strings a few years back. While not always the studio to see the Brinks truck back up with their box office haul, Laika has been in the trenches in terms of mesmerizing audiences by reminding them that in this ever-so-consuming portal of technological progression, stop-motion animation still exists. Not only does is it still utilized, but it continues to enchant us with a thrilling attention-to-detail and precision that glossier, solely computer-generated efforts might miss. Missing Link is their fifth feature, but with their keen eye for inventive stories and whimsical characters, it feels like they have a universe at least half the size of Pixar’s, thanks to all they pack in their films.

The film revolves around Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman), an adventurer with a nose for mystery. Ostracized by more esteemed explorers for his desire to chase such “obvious” myths as the Loch Ness Monster, Frost remains committed to his travels, and one day, finds his calling in the form of an odd letter he receives. The letter instructs him to head to the Pacific Northwest in search of the “missing link,” a creature which will connect man to its ancestry from hundreds of years in the past. His journey leads him to a Bigfoot-esque creature who goes by the name “Susan” (Zach Galifianakis), a lonely eccentric, whose gender is never quite stated (making Missing Link one of the first animated movies with a non-binary, or at least gender-fluid, character). In attempt to track down any distant relatives of Susan’s, Frost is led to Shangri-La and meets Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), who aids in tracking down anyone to whom Susan might be related.

Following the three is Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), a conniving explorer, hired by Lord Piggot-Dunceb (Stephen Fry), someone who specializes in hunting rare creature. What entails is a globetrotting affair that takes viewers everyone from the forests of the Pacific Northwest, the Himalayas, to the icy tundras where a gravity-defying climax awaits. It’s a rousing display of versatility in settings that is captured with that unmistakable Laika visual style.

The trickiest part about Laika, sometimes, is pinpointing exactly what demographic for which their films work best. Coraline and The Boxtrolls are two films I’d designate for more mature children, while I’m not going to pretend to know exactly how kids 12 and under responded to Kubo and the Two StringsMissing Link is the first to appear a little too antiquated in its humor for younger children and a bit silly for older audiences, although there is undoubtedly a group of people who enjoy their animated films, let’s say, “different,” who will find it perfectly acceptably — just like its furry lead character.

The film was written and directed by Chris Butler, who oversaw the production of the studio’s kid-friendly horror film ParaNorman. He holds audience interests by having a handful of smaller moments between Frost and Susan create dynamic chemistry while infrequent sequences of peril uphold the narrative and achieve a delicate balance of nuance and loose enjoyment. This is accentuated by the magnificent, colorful costume design from Deborah Cook, who makes every detail — from scenic backdrops to Frost’s jacket patterns — pop.

Missing Link has the same brand of dry but snappy interpersonal play between its two characters that Aardman Animation’s aforementioned Wallace & Gromit shorts featured so prominently. You can’t help but feel with all the traveling in the film, that Frost and Susan’s banter helps keep the story moving just as much as any setting change. This is the essence of Laika. They can have the most transcendent, unbound story and still infuse it with the small, minute inclusions that ultimately become the silver lining of their pictures.

NOTE: As of this writing, Missing Link is available to stream on Amazon Freevee, free of charge.

Voiced by: Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana, Timothy Olyphant, and Stephen Fry. Directed by: Chris Butler.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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