Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, the legend of Sasquatch (Bigfoot) was a familiar story to me at an early age. So it was a delight to finally catch up with Missing Link, the new stop-motion animated film from the Portland-based studio, Laika. And when the film opens with aristocratic English adventurer Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman) attempting to catch the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland (my current home), it felt like the film had a distinctly personal resonance. An underrated delightful romp, Missing Link takes a conventional adventure story and infuses it with a progressive ethos.
Akin to the Indiana Jones or National Treasure films, Missing Link falls squarely into adventure genre conventions: an adventurer goes on a quest for a hidden treasure while baddies try to kill him, all with his feisty lady friend and wisecracking sidekick along for the ride. What elevates Missing Link about some of its predecessors is its willingness to subvert or critique some of these tropes, particularly the underlying colonialist and patriarchal tones of a wealthy educated white guy traveling to other countries to essentially steal their cultural treasures for personal fame. What Missing Link does is question the very notion that Man has Evolved; the 19th-century post-Enlightenment Darwinian high anthropology is put on trial via wit and slapstick humor. Though ostensibly the protagonist, Sir Lionel is still a pompous ass, and his goal of finding the Sasquatch in Washington State in order to impress a group of other pompous asses is hard to get behind. Yet Jackman is adept at fusing arrogance with charm in his characters (e.g. The Greatest Showman). When Sir Lionel finally encounters and “discovers” the Sasquatch, whom he names Mr. Link (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), it’s less of a discovery as an introduction—Mr. Link is articulate and self-aware, and wrote Sir Lionel the very letter which prompted the Englishman to embark on this adventure. Mr. Link—he later names himself “Susan”—just wants to find a community of others like him, and he’s heard of the legend of Yetis in the Himalayas living in a hidden city of Shangri-La. Thus, the two misfits, Sir Lionel and Mr. Link, head out on a quest to earn a place of belonging in their respective worlds. Joining them is Lionel’s former beau Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), as well as the dastardly assassin Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), sent to kill Lionel by the head of the English club, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry).
Though Missing Link was made by Laika, the imaginative stop-animation studio behind Kubo and the Two Strings and Coraline, the animation demonstrates an incredible attention to detail while lacking some of the awe-inspiring world-building of previous efforts. The movements and manners of Sir Lionel and Susan are remarkably lifelike and smooth, yet its almost too lifelike—the forests look like real forests, the mountains like real mountains, the Western-era train stations like…well, you get the point. The sets are so well-crafted and realistic, it almost negates the distinctions of the medium. If the expressionism of animation can push the boundaries of our everyday reality and imagine new worlds, Missing Link often slips into the imitation of this-world reality and cinematic conventions (I’m thinking particularly of the “reveal” of Shangri-La and the subsequent final confrontations, which are all pretty visually uninspiring.) It’s also quite violent and intense—a lengthy night chase scene on a transatlantic boat journey involves guns, axes, fistfights, and plenty of moments of peril. My young children would likely not enjoy this adventure.
It’s this underlying violence where the highly progressive themes of Missing Link seem to have…well…a missing component. The villains here are so singular in their bigotry and evil that there seems to be no possibility of repentance or redemption—the only solution is death or a well-directed insult. While it’s not as grievous, the ending of Missing Link reminded me of the misfire conclusion to Kubo and the Two Strings, a film which mistakes deceit and manipulation for mercy. It’s hardly “evolved” to stick out one’s tongue at someone as they are essentially cut off from the world or fall to their death. Still, despite these quibbles, I found Missing Link to be charming and engaging, if not still in need of greater evolution in its aesthetic and ethical imagination.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6348138/