Laika’s latest mixes action, humor & message in a great family movie.
When watching a children’s movie as an adult, you become acutely aware of the ways these films teach children both the value system of the larger society and the tropes of the media they will consume the rest of their lives. And while Laika’s (Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings) latest Missing Link relies heavily on tried and true character tropes, it veers towards a more progressive value system that addresses the current atmosphere of environmental concern and xenophobia. This stop-motion animated film from writer/director Chris Butler (ParaNorman) mixes a heart-warming message with comedy and adventure that is a promising entry in children’s cinema.
Set in the Victorian/Edwardian era, Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) is an adventurer/cryptozoologist looking to gain entry to an exclusive club for English adventurers. After making a bet with the club’s aristocratic leader Lord Piggot-Dunceb (Stephen Fry) that he will be granted entry if he can provide proof of the existence of a Sasquatch, Frost travels to the Pacific Northwest and meets the fabled creature (Zach Galifianakis).
The Sasquatch, which Frost names Mr. Link, wants Frost to help him find Shangri-La in Nepal, where a tribe of Yeti lives. Mr. Link reveals he’s the last of his kind and wants to find somewhere he can fit in. The pair are joined by Frost’s ex-girlfriend and the widow of his former adventuring partner, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), who has a map to the mythic valley. As the trio globe-trots to their destination, they are chased by hitman Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), hired by Piggot-Dunceb to kill Frost. Piggot-Dunceb views the idea of a missing link between man and ape to be a threat to the “natural order” and will stop at nothing, not even murder, to make sure Frost fails.
Despite advertisements plastered on buses, billboards and internet banners that feature Mr. Link, Missing Link is ultimately Frost’s story of growth. Frost is presented as someone who is so driven to reach his goal of being a famed adventurer that he ignores the people he hurts along the way. The opening of the film has his original valet storm out after almost being eaten by the Loch Ness Monster. Frost attempts to calm his associate by saying “[he] personally guarantees [Mr. Lindt] won’t be eaten in the future,” to which his valet cries “That’s what you promised last time!” Frost’s character stands as a middle ground between the type of selfless person that Adelina wants him to be, and the overtly sinister Lord Piggot-Dunceb. Frost isn’t portrayed as malicious, just self-absorbed.
Early in the film, he brings up the value of “his word,” which made your humble reviewer fear this would turn into a “main character deceives others and is found out.” I assumed then that Frost would promise to take Link to Nepal, but then for some reason decide to take him to England and his growth would come from feeling guilty. Luckily, this isn’t the case, Link and Frost make a transactional agreement, and Frost is upfront that he’s doing it for the fame rather than something altruistic. He’s never a “bad person,” he has honor and does what he says, he’s just a little selfish. In this way, the growth he has at the end of the film where he learns to take others into consideration feels more rewarding.
Galifianakis’ Mr. Link is exactly what you think he would be for a kid’s movie character. He’s played extremely goofy, bumbling and naïve, as well as talking far too modernly for someone who learned to speak English from 19th-century newspapers. It is nice, however, that the film rarely relies on gross-out or scatological humor, instead going for the fish out of water humor of Mr. Link not understanding turns of phrase or other contexts. He takes everything literally, which often causes frustration for Frost, such as when he tells Link to “throw the rope” over a wall, and Link throws the entire rope over the wall. The film also avoids using cheap pop culture references, or “nonsense humor” (think the Minions’ “BANANA” gag ). Mr. Link is the rare kid’s movie creature that will be endearing and humorous to children, without annoying their parents.
Mr. Link is the rare kid’s movie creature that will be endearing and humorous to children, without annoying their parents.
One of the more troubling characters is Adelina Fortnight. Her character itself is good: she’s self-reliant and strong-willed. However, Butler uses her too heavy-handedly as the moral voice of the film. Most of Frost’s growth comes from Fortnight telling him exactly what or how to feel, and she is often in the background nodding her head in agreement or shaking her head in frustration at other character’s actions. After reaching Shangri-La, the Yetis tell the group they are wary of humans because they exploit nature and try to change peaceful civilizations, to which Fortnight says “She has a point you know.” It’s frustrating that the filmmakers didn’t think the audience would be able to figure out at least some of the moral of the story on their own.
Despite this, Saldana gives a great performance, and where her character goes at the end of the story is genuinely rewarding. Moreover, though there is romantic tension between her and Frost, it’s almost completely one-sided. Though Adelina plays along with Frost’s flirtations through the film, it’s obvious she has no intention of a romance, but Frost is too self-centered to realize it.
Making Lord Piggot-Dunceb the antagonist of the film is a bold choice by Butler, and one wonders if it will receive any backlash from more conservative viewers. Beneath the veneer of quotidian snobbery that he and his group reject Frost on the idea that Frost isn’t “respectable enough,” his real aim is to maintain the idea of British imperialism, deny the existence of evolution, and uphold sexism. When Frost visits the club to excitedly tell them of the existence of a living missing link, humankind’s primate ancestor, Piggot reacts in disgust and declares “man descended from man.” He also goes on to say the club is for those who conquer nature, and bring civilization to primitive cultures.
While these messages take a backseat to the messages of altruism and friendship that drive the main plot of the story, the film takes a stand that: 1) evolution is real 2) nature should be appreciated for its own sake rather than as something to be conquered, and 3) imperialism isn’t a good thing. Given the political divisiveness of these topics, and the “play-it-safe” mentality of Hollywood, this is a refreshing take.
Visually, the film is wonderfully colorful, yet still restrained. The artistic direction seemed to go all out on saturation of the colors, but the vibrancy is turned down to create the interplay between light and shadow. The city scenes are full of greys, blacks and browns, but the nature scenes are given a wide-spectrum of color. There is also great detail, especially Frost’s tweed suit and carpetbag. The animation is playful, and the action scenes are genuinely dramatic, and well-paced. While somethings feel rushed, specifically the way in which Fortnight goes from hating Frost to wanting to join the group seems a tad unrealistic, it is well paced and doesn’t drag. At 95 minutes, it’s the perfect length for a family feature.
Despite all that it has going for it, it’s hard to recommend Missing Link for adults who won’t be watching the film with children. It’s good, but it doesn’t have any transcendental themes that would speak to adults as well as children. Especially due to the didactic use of Fortnight spelling out every moral theme to the audience, this film isn’t one that an adult would probably watch on their own. But for those who need something to watch with a young person, it’s a perfect fit. The adults may not feel particularly enlightened after watching it, but they won’t feel bored either.