The title of Laika Studio’s latest, Missing Link, has at least three meanings. It ostensibly refers to the erudite yet naive Bigfoot character, Mr. Link A.K.A. Susan (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), This furry fellow calls on the charlatan British explorer, Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), to spirit him away from his hermetic life in the Pacific Northwest to the Himalayan mountains to join his possible Yeti brethren. However, the title also alludes to the animated adventure’s content and form, bridging the gulf between classic Hollywood action films – via allusions to Gunga Din (1939), John Ford’s Westerns, and the serials that inspired the Indiana Jones films, et al. – and digital-era populist filmmaking.
A more successful meta-meaning lies in the studio’s further integration of their trademark stop-motion technique with the more commonly deployed CGI animation, inching towards closing the gap between the uncanny herky-jerky old-school style and the more polished, still-developing one. This technological advancement is quite apparent in Missing Link’s gorgeous sights: shimmery and cavernous icescapes; lived-in Victorian-era English architecture and design; a dirt- and mud-caked Western town straight out of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971); and (as odd as it may be to say) incredibly lifelike human skin grafted over angular caricatures of faces and bodies.
Unfortunately, the film’s borrowing of tried-and-true old-fashioned narratives is less successful than these miniature wonders. Laika’s previous outing, the superlative Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), presented a visually inventive and emotionally-resonant fantasy rooted in Japanese myths and folklore. Accordingly, one might anticipate that Missing Link would contain the keen wit, great stakes, and careful character building of the former. It doesn’t, exactly. That’s not to say that it completely lacks these qualities, but even in the modicum of moments that contain them, they lack the exhilarating originality for which Laika films are often credited.
Missing Link also stands apart from the studio’s previous works in that, while their features are purportedly for kids and families, it’s difficult to imagine the youngest cohort of viewers will be satiated by this outing’s leisurely pacing, sparse laughs, and lack of a child proxy. With that, it is surprisingly similar to another recent, albeit more revisionist, exploration film, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z (2016). While that film’s fresh take on the genre presented its protagonist on a hamster wheel of obsession, Missing Link eschews any new ideas about the inextricable strands of discovery and colonialism for a more traditional globe-trotting narrative.
Nevertheless, similar beats and characters are present. Much like Lost City’s protagonist, Frost is a foolhardy dilettante scorned by a society of explorers due to his presentational manner and lack of evidence for his proposed discoveries. The cold open presents a bungled attempt at capturing a picture of the Loch Ness Monster, a debacle that results in a near-death experience for the man’s partner -- which Frost glibly tosses off as a mere occupational hazard. He then receives an anonymous letter stating the whereabouts of the legendary Sasquatch, causing him to boast pridefully about his planned trip to capture the beast to his main rival, the respected elder Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry).
Frost arrives in the States to find that the the letter’s author was the elusive, hairy hominid himself, who wrote to Frost after seeing the Englishman’s exploits plastered on the front pages of newspapers. Frost is surprised to learn that not only is this creature -- which he later dubs “Mr. Link” -- capable of speech, but also a being of great intelligence, save for his inability to grasp sarcasm. (This results in the film’s best comic moments.) After striking a mutually beneficial deal to get Link to the mountains of Central Asia, the two traverse the globe with Link traveling incognito in uncomfortably small gentleman’s attire.
What follows is an episodic journey through various classic genres and their associated ocales. A stop in a gunslinger’s saloon results in an all-out bar brawl. Frost and Link heisting a map from the Southwestern U.S. home of the explorer’s former partner’s wife, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), results in her joining their journey. A boat ride across the Atlantic presents a rip-roaring action setpiece with the three confronting a hitman, Willard Stank (Timothy Olyphant), hired by Piggot-Dunceby to eliminate Frost and crew. (Again, who exactly is this for?). Although these episodes often lack purpose other than creatively updating tropes with new tech, each section is still handsomely realized, with direction by Chris Butler of Laika’s ParaNorman (2012) that resembles a less-precious version of Wes Anderson’s ornate dollhouse style, complete with a camera that moves smoothly along the horizontal axis.
The players meet in the denouement, which is set in the fictional paradise Shangri-La from James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon (itself adapted twice into adventure yarns in 1937 and 1973). The Yeti overlords reject “redneck cousin” Mr. Link – now going by Susan, after Frost allows him some much-needed autonomy – raising the possibility that the title Missing Link may have yet another meaning about the journey of self-discovery and self-actualization. That notion, although entirely earned through its two leads’ arcs, nevertheless tows the line between touching and trite. With that, the film ultimately fails to transcend to anything beyond its technological achievements, becoming a minor misstep in nearly unbreakable chain of artistic success.