At the risk of sounding like the cantankerous old geezer lounging on his porch with a shotgun and a tall glass of lemonade, there’s something to be said for animation that’s still done the ol’-fashioned way—frame-by-frame and all by hand. Whether it’s physically-painted cels (as with Disney classics like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella) or physically-moved claymation creatures (as with Wallace and Gromit and the Rankin-Bass Christmas classics), there’s a true sense of rustic pseudo-amateurism that just seems to make things more endearing. Don’t get me wrong, I love Pixar as much as the next guy, but let’s sincerely hope studios like Laika and Aardman don’t stop plying their trade anytime soon.
For Missing Link, their fifth feature, the Laika team offers up their most ambitious project yet—a sprawling tale that spans three continents but still maintains an intimate feel, all while being populated with characters that deftly tread the line between lovable and loony. And though it doesn’t quite reach the level of excellence the studio reached with the brilliant Kubo and the Two Strings, Missing Link is nevertheless a wholly entertaining adventure that’s well worth the ride.
Hugh Jackman lends his voice to Sir Lionel Frost, a late-19th-century explorer whose aim in life is to earn membership in the uber-exclusive Optimates Club, a British society of posh gents which, alas, wants nothing to do with him. When Frost strikes a deal to present proof of the existence of Sasquatch in exchange for membership, the club’s leader Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) gives in. But no sooner has Frost set off on his quest than the nefarious Lord hires the Yosemite Sam-like Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant) to off the naive explorer mid-hunt.
Frost wastes no time in traveling to Washington State and finding the Sasquatch named Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis)—though in fairness, it wasn’t exactly difficult; the creature actually sent Frost a letter asking for help in tracking down his extended family in the Himalayas. Once the pair meet up, the real challenge begins—trekking halfway across the world to find Link’s Yeti cousins.
Frost begins by meeting up with his ex-flame Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), who has a map of the Himalayas that might prove useful, and she agrees to provide it to Frost on the condition that she’s allowed to join the expedition. With Stenk still hot on the trail, the trio sets off on their journey.
Writer and director Chris Butler (who helmed Laika’s ParaNorman and co-wrote Kubo) has not only created a fun and imaginative story but also brought it to life with all the magic and nuance we’ve come to expect from Laika over the years. From the subtlest moments (carriage ruts in a muddy London street, the fuzzy wool on Frost’s trousers) to the largest set pieces (an elephant ride through India, which is examined more closely in a nifty mid-credits scene), Butler spares no detail. And with full buy-in from the talented voice cast (which also includes Emma Thompson and Matt Lucas), Missing Link becomes one of those films that may well get overlooked at the time (and subsequently lost in the shuffle of Avengers: Endgame’s mega-release) but is worthy of finding its well-deserved audience whenever the time is right.
Hopefully, that time is sooner rather than later, so the young whipper-snappers can learn how old-school animation can still be done right.