Over the past decade, Laika has carved out a niche in the over-crowded world of children’s animation, producing old-school stop-motion features that eschew the easy jokes, cheap moralizing, and formulaic plotting that characterize today’s kiddie fare. If the films tend to be more clever than funny and more pleasant than truly exciting, they nevertheless offer a homey alternative to such flashy and spastic computer-generated monstrosities like The Nut Job. The trend continues with Chris Butler’s Missing Link, a genteel, globe-trotting adventure in the spirit of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, with doses of Lost Horizon and cryptozoology added in for good measure.
The film teams unflappable explorer and cryptid hunter Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) with fellow adventurer Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana) and a sasquatch dubbed Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis) on a quest to unite the bigfoot with his distant relatives, the yetis who live in a hidden fortress high in the Himalayan mountains. All the while, they’re pursued by Lord Piggot-Dunceb (Stephen Fry), the traditionalist head of the Optimates Club, an explorers’ club to which Frost desperately craves membership. Concerned that Frost’s discovery of the missing link could prove the truth of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Piggot hires a ruthless hitman (Timothy Olyphant) to assassinate the hairy monster.
As in Laika’s other efforts, the humor in the film is more wry than gut-busting, but Butler has developed some truly inventive comic characters, particularly Mr. Link, who, despite his monstrous façade, is really just a lonely, insecure guy with a penchant for Amelia Bedelia-like literalness. Stuffed for much of Missing Link into an incredibly small suit, he’s the sort of off-kilter comedic creation you might expect to find in a Wes Anderson film—and to be voiced by Jason Schwartzman. But while Mr. Link is charming enough, he and every other character in the film are never given the opportunity to operate on the audience’s funny bones.
That’s largely a product of Missing Link’s oddly slack comic timing. Butler deflates the film’s punchlines so consistently that one begins to wonder if he’s not doing so on purpose. It’s almost as if he’s afraid the audience might get too caught up in the jokes and miss all the intricate details of the animation and production design. And, in fairness, those details are well worth poring over, from the wildly exaggerated anatomy of the films’ characters (whose skulls range from elongated pickles to bulbous pumpkins), to the tastefully ostentatious period-accurate costumes (in particular Frost’s tweedy houndstooth three-piece suits).
Nowhere is this expert craftsmanship on fuller display than in the creative and beautifully rendered sets, which flit through a dozen or so wildly divergent 19th-century milieus, including Frost’s overstuffed office, which exists in a perpetual state of Holmesian disarray; a muddy Pacific Northwest logging town straight out of McCabe & Mrs. Miller; Southwestern scenery that looks like something out of a John Ford film crossed with a Chuck Jones cartoon; and the yetis’ icy safe haven. Each one feels remarkably tactile, not just like well-dressed sets but like environments one could imagine getting up and walking around in.
In a touch that’s become a trademark of Laika’s films like ParaNorman and Kubo and the Two Strings, Missing Link closes with a time-lapse sequence showing us the extensive work that goes into the studio’s animation. The filmmakers badly want us to understand how hard it is to make a movie like this, and rightly so. But all that tedious, fiddly effort would be meaningless if not for the imagination and sense of wonder that undergirds it all.