The movies from animation studio Laika have never been big hits, but they’ve always been thoughtful and quirky and entirely distinctive from the sometimes overly similar computer-animated films produced by major Hollywood conglomerates. So it’s a bit disappointing that Laika’s latest film, Missing Link, while thoroughly charming, is the studio’s most conventional to date, with a story that wouldn’t be out of place in a movie from DreamWorks or Blue Sky (and shares a few elements with last year’s dreadful Smallfoot, from Warner Animation Group). Laika’s approach, with its painstaking stop-motion animation and sensitive storytelling, ensures that Missing Link never feels like a crass corporate product. But it lacks the ethereal wonder of the studio’s best work (including Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings), and its slight, episodic story occasionally lags.
For the most part, though, Missing Link is lively and fun as it follows the Victorian-era adventures of intrepid (and pompous) English explorer Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman) and the Sasquatch he dubs Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis), although the surprisingly articulate creature prefers to be called Susan. Mr. Link actually writes a letter to Lionel, asking the famed (but often ridiculed) myth-hunter to help him track down his distant relations in the Himalayas, since he’s the only Sasquatch left in the American wilderness (exactly what happened to the rest of the Sasquatches is never addressed). Mr. Link believes that he belongs among the Yeti, and so he and Lionel set off on a quest to the mythical land of Shangri-La.
First, however, they must acquire a map from Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), the widow of one of Lionel’s former partners, with whom Lionel also has a romantic past. The feisty Adelina insists on joining them on their adventure, even as they’re pursued by ruthless bounty hunter Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), who’s been hired to thwart Lionel by a stuffy society of explorers back in London. Lionel wants nothing more than to join this organization of snooty colonizers, but he has to learn to forge his own, more forward-thinking path, while Mr. Link learns to find family among those who truly accept him.
The life lessons are pretty basic, but they’re delivered gently, and the movie is more focused on goofy humor, especially Mr. Link’s tendency to take everything literally (he may speak perfect English, but he doesn’t have much experience interacting with humans). It’s all depicted via Laika’s typically gorgeous stop-motion animation, which lends the visuals a tactile weight that CGI, no matter how detailed, never quite captures. There are CGI enhancements to certain elements, but the core of the animation is all created by hand, and that craftsmanship assures a kind of measured artistry that can get lost in many loud, garish computer-animated features.
The characters here each have their own singular looks, and the voice cast brings just enough personality to each one, without ever becoming distracting. Some of the character development (especially the dynamic between Lionel and Adelina) is a little thin, but the core relationship between Lionel and Mr. Link is sweetly rewarding. The polished Missing Link (written and directed by Chris Butler, who previously made Laika’s darker, bolder ParaNorman) may be a little too genteel, although it’s probably the studio’s most blatantly kid-friendly effort. If that means it reaches a larger audience and allows Laika to make more unique, ambitious films, then it will be well worth the compromise.