LAIKA serves a light but fulfilling story of man and monster friendship
Portland-based animation studio LAIKA Films made a name for itself by showcasing seamless stop-motion cartoons that are as meticulously designed as they are emotionally resonant. The painstaking skill that goes into the visuals of each of their projects draws immediate awe, but it’s the thematic consistency in telling stories about outsiders and misfits trying to find their in-group that’s become LAIKA’s corner in the world of family-friendly filmmaking. “Missing Link,” a film about a lone Sasquatch on a journey to find a hidden land of creatures like himself, fits nicely into the small studio’s catalog.
Hugh Jackman voices Sir Lionel Frost, an early 20th-century explorer who searches the globe for evidence of paranormal and cryptozoological phenomena. In an attempt to impress the high society he wishes to be a part of, Frost travels to the Pacific Northwest of the United States to find a mysterious Sasquatch. There he meets and befriends a 600-pound ape-like man that he decides to call Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis). But unlike the majority of the dangerous monsters that Frost usually encounters, Mr. Link is a well-spoken and slightly neurotic personality whose only wish is to meet someone like himself. This desire leads the duo on a journey to find a hidden community of yetis that live in the Himalayan Mountains. On their way, they pick up one of Lionel’s past lovers Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), while also narrowly escaping the many attacks by the scraggly poacher Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant).
With every new project, the spooky, goth-friendly aesthetics that LAIKA initially featured in its earlier work like “Coraline” and “ParaNorman” has been noticeably reduced. “Missing Link” focuses on a warmer, inviting tone, more in common with the quirky but optimistic disposition of the British Aardman movies like “Shaun the Sheep” or the animated works of Wes Anderson such as “Isle of Dogs.” In taking this step, the studio will hopefully find longevity outside the initial connection to the style of Tim Burton’s lead animation director Henry Selick.
This is LAIKA’s most relaxed and breezy outing yet. The dry wit and the matter-of-fact delivery of the dialogue keep the story bopping along as we get to know our principle characters, but there isn’t much in the way of conflict or stakes built into the plot. As such, this is a light meal of a feature and the rising action tends to crest a little too early, but it’s director/writer Chris Butler’s love and warmth for the characters that make up for the lack of narrative tension.
“Missing Link” may be assessed as a lesser effort by LAIKA’s usual standards, and maybe that’s an accurate take, but the core humanity of the story and the sizzling dialogue adds enough points in the plus column to earn a solid recommendation. I would have liked to have seen another 15 to 20 minutes to better support the character arcs, and I wish the villain would have had more to do other than show up every four scenes to annoy our heroes, but all minor complaints aside, this is yet another terrific celebration of the outsider by the imminently creative animation house.
Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He freelances for both print and online outlets.