Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Missing Link Is Mostly Agreeable But It's Also A Step Down From Past LAIKA Films

Missing Link is a very traditional sort of family movie, a stark contrast to many animated American family movies that pride themselves on constant wink-winks and self-referential nods to the audience. That's not the angle Missing Link wants to go down, no siree, instead, it's a classical globe-trotting adventure story with flashes of a Western and an old-timey slapstick comedy (think Laurel & Hardy) thrown in for good measure. All of these old Hollywood influences result in writer/director Chris Butler making a movie that tries to stick to just the basics, but it does that job too well, resulting in a film that far too often registers as passably agreeable rather than exceptionally memorable.

The story of this new animated movie from LAIKA (the animation outfit behind Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings) concerns Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), an intrepid explorer who wants to be allowed entrance into a fancy British explorer guild resided over by Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry). Frost makes a deal that he'll be allowed to finally join this club if he finds proof of the fabled Sasquatch, a creature Frost has recently been told can be found in the forests of Washington. Traveling to this location, Frost discovers that the creature, who is eventually called Susan (Zach Galifianakis), is not a savage monster but a considerate individual who wants nothing more than to travel to Shangri-La so that he can reunite with the mythical yeti's that reside there.

So begins an adventure to this fabled locale that soon involves Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), an ex-lover of Frost, and a nefarious bounty hunter by the name of William Stenk (Timothy Olyphant) hired to take out Lionel Frost. Like the globe-trotting escapades of Indiana Jones, the adventures of the lead characters of Missing Link span numerous different countries, allowing the LAIKA animators to create all sorts of richly detailed environments for Frost and company to inhabit. Gigantic monkey statues, an Old West town, a forest where you can see every hand-made blade of grass, the backgrounds in Missing Link alone are just stunning to take in.

Those animation wizards at LAIKA have always shown a gift for such lusciously realized sets and it's wonderful to see that tradition alive and well here. Also carried over from a prior production (specifically Kubo and the Two Strings) is the ability to execute exciting action sequences, particularly in one pivotal set piece set at sea. This sequence concerns William Stenk chases after our three lead protagonists on a boat during a thunderstorm that sees everything around the characters shifting constantly. You see, the boat is being tossed around so thoroughly in the storm that everything can get turned upside down or tilted to a profound degree in a manner that reminded me of the hotel hallway fight scene in Inception. One can only imagine how they were able to pull off such a sequence in the format of stop-motion animation but it's an impressive and thrilling sight to behold.

Missing Link's animation is top-shelf work, but the screenplay by Chris Butler is a more scattershot creation. The primary problem is that the main character of Lionel Frost just isn't a particularly fascinating individual. Hugh Jackman's vocal performance has plenty of life in it, but the character is one we've seen too many times before and lacks the charming swagger that many classic adventure heroes had to make audiences tolerate their flashes of arrogance. To boot, Lionel's primary arc of learning to see the people around him as actual people rather than as tools to help him achieve his goals is an oddly repetitive one. So much screentime is dedicated to Lionel being a thinly sketched selfish oaf who doesn't grow all that much during the story while Susan is stuck on the sidelines being a one-dimensional comic relief sidekick without much in the way of agency or depth to their name. 

For a movie about championing the humanity of those society deems "The Other", Missing Link doesn't seem to have much interest in such individuals itself. At least the character of Susan is brought to life through a humorous Zach Galifianakis vocal performance, one that sees the actor bringing a charming casual spirit to a larger-than-life creature that results in some of the most humorous line deliveries of the entire feature. The more subdued moments of vocal comedy from Susan are the best pieces of levity in Missing Link, which has a bad habit of relying too heavily on overly familiar slapstick or predictable potty humor for yuks. Though certainly better than a good number of animated family movies out there, Missing Link is a case of some outstanding animation being at the service of a script that settles too often for the predictable and conventional. This may be a more old-fashioned classical adventure story but couldn't it have had more zest to it?

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