REVIEW: Missing Link

Here we go, another ‘missing link’ Hugh Jac- urm, I mean, P.T. Barnum, can exploit.

An egotistical British explorer and naturalist, Sir Lionel Frost, agrees to escort the fabled American sasquatch – suitably referred to as Mr. Link – on a globe-trotting adventure to his distant Yeti relatives in the Himalayas.

One of my more anticipated films of 2019 from the genius animation company, Laika, Missing Link was an adventurous, creative masterstroke in animation that lived up to its titular studio’s immaculate name. Having released genuine animated masterpieces in the past few years such as Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, if you dig deep enough somewhere, you could find that I personally went on record stating that I believe Laika to be the new Pixar and Studio Ghibli. Instead of operating in the realms of CG or hand drawn animation, Laika’s style has exclusively fell into the camp of stop-motion – an artform, I believe, to not be as deeply appreciated as it should be in this day and age (a field of “lost art”… if you will). Still upholding the heart, humour and essence of early day Pixar projects or just the entire run of Ghibli, Laika has always struck me as an earnest, true attempt to return art back into animation, refusing to succumb to becoming the mindless product vomit children are subjected to nowadays. With their newest project Missing Link, although I could not exactly say this movie was the best of the best from Laika’s camp, the film still managed to resonate in a way that many animated flicks fail to achieve, and for that, I feel Missing Link should be more heavily appreciated.

My initial thoughts of Missing Link would have to have been how entertaining it was. Channelling the scope of an Indiana Jones type adventure, moving through locations from the United Kingdom to the United States through Europe, India and eventually Nepal, Missing Link really made best with their animated world and expressed landscapes, time stamps and cultures in such detail that only animation could have attained. Such vibrant frames from misty lakes to creaky woods to Western townships to lush jungles to icy hidden kingdoms, Missing Link painted a world of wonder and ore that perfectly drove a hunger for exploration and discovery. Judging from Laika’s previous works – especially Kubo – I don’t think it was entirely a shock to see the lengths Laika were able to take in their ability to animate such a visual spectacle. Yet, it was impressive to sit back and allow a world of animation (particularly, stop-motion animation) open my eyes to a world so mystical and deep but also so real. It felt at times I was watching an animated Indiana Jones or something like The Castle of Cagliostro – far from an animated failure.

If I did though have to relate Missing Link to a particular piece of classic literature it would, without a doubt, be the notorious Around the World in Eight Days. Now, yes, I could indeed be referring to the 1873 French novel from Jules Verne, which I have never read, but on a more personal level, when watching Missing Link, I couldn’t help recalling the Jackie Chan live-action version of the classic text from 2004. I agree, the Disney adaptation of the novel wasn’t what you would call “a good movie” but, based on nostalgia, I have always had a sweet spot for the flick. So, whilst sitting in my screening for Missing Link, I couldn’t help but align certain elements between the two properties: the heroes call to action was almost exactly the same in both stories as were the villains and their intents, the general conceit of the narrative, the various global settings and even the action set pieces… all of which felt oddly similar. I couldn’t help but think Missing Link was Laika’s ode to Around the World in Eighty Days – a respectful rewiring of the original story. Although I was just using 2004’s Around the World in Eighty Days as a way to gage a perspective on the original novel, I couldn’t help but also watch Missing Link with a lens of biased nostalgia for the Jackie Chan adventure flick. I would be lying if I said Missing Link didn’t spark good memories of that 2004 Disney adaptation and the adventurous energy it installed in me at a young age – so in a way, Missing Link even hit me on a rather personal level.

On a whole though, for being able to subtly sneak a more magical reinterpretation of one of history’s greatest adventure texts into a modern animated film, you have to really celebrate Laika for their strong knowledge of classic literature and further ability to adapt celebrated historical material into a modern arena. When a film company whom usually direct their projects towards a child audience proactively yearn to teach children, subtly, of classic literature and texts within the bounds of just telling a solid story, you know you have a winning band of auteurs on your hands. The Simpsons, more exclusively in their legendary 1990s run, operated not only to tell comedic adventure stories on modern life for modern children, but also prioritised using their episodes to teach children the value of classic storytelling and, furtherly, storytellers (like The Grapes of Wrath or Edgar Allan Poe). Laika has seemingly employed a similar duel skillset in the making of Missing Link to which I believe really paid off and enrichened this heightened adventure even more than I thought possible.

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(Laika Studios/Annapurna Pictures 2019)

Despite the genius of Laika and Missing Link though, I did have some dislikes in how elements of the film were executed. For example, the characters were not as strong as past Laika characters. After Kubo, which offered some of the best written animated characters of the 21st century, I assumed character writing would be evidently simple for Laika, but most of the best character moments were undercut by goofy comedy that didn’t entirely work. The film’s ability to juggle the emotional moments and the laugh out loud moments really stumbled at times, risking the impact of the film’s protagonists. Sir Lionel Frost, for example, did not entirely undertake a convincing transformation from a selfish man to a loving man whilst the empowering Adelina Fortnight similarly didn’t give much credence to why her character was even necessary to the narrative in the first place. The villains evolved into rather generic “evil people” whilst the central piece of the film, Mr. Link, had a lot of his emotional sequences ruined by, you guessed it, jokes. The characters were not necessarily terrible – don’t get me wrong – its just they were more disappointing when placed on a pedestal with earlier Laika creations.

Yet, everything surrounding said characters, other than their writing, worked exceptionally. The character designs were lively and ingenious whilst the voice talents all proved to be rather perfect when placed within the bodies of their roles. Hugh Jackman would indeed have to have been the standout whilst Zoe Saldana, Timothy Olyphant and Stephen Fry also inserted their signature energy into the project. I was not completely sold on Zach Galifianakis as the titular Mr. Link, but the rest of the cast levelled out my discomfort with that single casting choice.

To reiterate, Missing Link was a non-disputable awesome watch, so vast and explorative in its imagination. I loved the way the film ended and am currently hoping a sequel is made… because Missing Link could perfectly start a classic animated franchise with the ability to rival tentpole serials like Shrek or Kung Fu Panda. Yet, I doubt a sequel will ever be made, sadly. The truth is, in my screening for Missing Link, I was the only person in attendance. And yeah, sure it’s cool to have a cinema to yourself, but a film this well done deserved much better. Missing Link reportedly received Laika’s worst box office opening ever and, with a studio that has continued to release nothing but quality, its honestly devastating to see the general filmgoing audience not support them.

Although not perfect, Missing Link was one of the best animated features I have seen in my time reviewing films. I cannot stress this enough that audiences need to get behind these stop-motion art pieces and, in particular, the output of Laika. An underdog studio that deserves our love and respect, Laika is one of the only company’s who have proven time and time again their skill to actually create art alongside entertainment. So again, I must implore you, instead of taking your children to the next Illumination Entertainment sh*tfest, take them to something like Missing Link – a rich and fulfilling experience for children of all ages and a must watch if you believe art still has a place in cinema.

Missing Link is a bloody… CRUSADE!!

 

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