Year of release: 2019 Directed by Chris Butler. Voices of Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Fry, Timothy Olyphant, and Emma Thompson.
Since their feature film Coraline in 2009, which remains my favorite film for that year, Laika Studios has been high on my radar. Unfortunately, the subsequent films they released—ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings—all fell short of the greatness of their first feature, some more than others. At the same time, all of those films had many moments of inspired brilliance and breathtaking awe that endeared all of those works to me in spite of their flaws.
With Missing Link, the fifth film from the studio, they have once again hit a home run on par with their debut feature. Tragically, given its poor box office returns, it seems that American audiences have either lost interest in Laika films or have not heard about this one at all.
Either scenario is a tremendous pity, because Missing Link is not only a return to perfect form (because if we’re honest Laika never lost good form), but it is also a welcome breath of fresh air in the midst of most family entertainment currently being produced.
The list of the film’s virtues includes, but is not limited to:
- It showcases the values of self-sacrifice and open mindedness as the narcissistic protagonist learns to overcome his selfishness.
- It has no surprise villain. Indeed, there is a moment, when the saturation of that trope in recent family films causes one to think a character is going to be a surprise villain, but thankfully that is not the case.
- The villains are not rationalized, (a mistake in two of Laika’s previous films) and their wicked actions lead to their own undoing, and the kindhearted protagonist even tries to prevent them.
- There are no dead parents/guardians, although to be fair, the protagonist is an adult. However, that’s another overused trope it is nice to see avoided.
- Director Chris Butler writes a compelling, interesting female character, giving her some of the best lines in the film, and he does not sideline her.
- It avoids nearly every family film cliché with aplomb by taking interesting and dramatically believable turns whenever it seems a cliché is going to occur.
- It features an extremely convincing reexamination of childhood dreams and heroes, acknowledging there is often something far greater we need to acknowledge in order to mature.
- The film manages to cross examine and critique toxic masculinity and the sexist, racist patriarchal norms of the 19th century without being preposterously anachronistic or obnoxiously contrived.
- It has an all-around fantastic voice cast
- It looks absolutely stunningly gorgeous, as all Laika films do.
- It even manages to make the requisite poop jokes clever.
The story centers around Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), who longs to be admitted to the elite explores club in London, but is excluded by the sinister Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) since all Sir Lionel’s adventures concern chasing monsters, which the rigid fundamentalist adamantly refuses to believe exist. The hilarious opening sequence with the Loch Ness Monster proves otherwise.
Sir Lionel receives a note from a fan in America asking him to prove the existence of the Sasquatch. What he finds there is a friendly, fur-covered, 8-foot tall missing link between humans and apes he aptly names Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis). Mr. Link, whose real name is a funny and touching surprise, wishes to recruit Sir Lionel, who is “the real deal,” to help him travel to the Himalayas so he can live with his cousins, the Yeti, in Shangri-La.
Their Jules Verne inspired journey takes them to Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), a former lover of Frost’s who is still rightly disgusted by his selfishness and vanity. Meanwhile, they must dodge the repeated assassination attempts of Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), hired by Lord Piggot-Dunceby to prevent Frost from ever proving his discoveries exist.
Following in the steps of Jules Verne, the adventure reaches the glorious climax promised from the beginning. The visuals of that destination are some of the most gorgeous stop motion imagery Laika has crafted, and that is in addition to a Yeti queen voiced by Emma Thompson. However, the cross-examination of those goals brings into relief that when we form our aspirations and choose our heroes for the sake of worldly fame, we will not only be disappointed but that will often prevent us from growing and maturing as well.
Not only does the destination matter, but the manner in which one arrives there is equally important. Missing Link acknowledges the importance of both in a funny, beautifully and painstakingly crafted adventure that celebrates both its destination and its journey.
Personal Recommendation: A
Content advisory: Some rather intense peril, sinister villains, and mildly crass humor. MPAA rating: PG
Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment