Studio Laika takes another step forward, crafting a movie that may finally win Best Animated Feature.
Laika sits in a weird paradox. Even as the studio garners more and more awards and accolades, it’s films make less and less money. Way back in April, Missing Link hit theaters and promptly bombed. The Sasquatch buddy comedy cost 100 million dollars and took in only 26 million. Despite that, the film is now contending for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It’s the sixth film from Laika to vie for the prize.
In 2016, we were in a similar spot with Kubo and the Two Strings. The film cleaned up with critics, but struggled financially. Despite Laika’s box office fortunes heading downwards, the studio continues to refine its style. Missing Link feels, appropriately, like the link between their more eccentric sensibilities and the big, gorgeous visual spectacles audiences will appreciate.
Missing Link (2019)
Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) searches out cryptozoological animals, looking to establish himself as a noted adventurer. Unable to provide proof of these mythical creatures, he is denied membership in the “Society of Great Men” club he desperately desires.
His fortunes seem to change when he gets a fan letter purporting to know of the location of a Sasquatch, the legendary Big Foot. Things take a turn, however, when it is revealed the writer of the letter is Mr. Link (Zack Galifianakis)…the Sasquatch himself. Vindicated, Sir Lionel agrees to help the creature find his kin, the Yeti, in the Himalayas. To do so, he’ll need a rare map from an old flame (Zoe Saldana) and to avoid a bitter rival (Stephen Fry).
The story for Missing Link is straight-forward. Discover magical creature and get it home is pretty much Kids Movie 101. It seems that the inclusion of traditionally less-kid-friendly creatures like Yeti and Sasquatch is no modern impediment. I say this confidently, this being the third kids movie featuring Yeti I have reviewed in little more than a one-year period.
Boiled down further, Missing Link is an odd couple comedy. Lionel is bold, clever, but selfish. Link is bumbling, simple, yet deeply kind and generous. Jackman and Galifianakis play off each other well, with Jackman getting laughs with clever wordplay and subversion of the Indiana Jones heroic archetype, and Galifianakis relying on misunderstanding, literal readings of situations, and deadpan humor to sell the punchlines. When Zoe Saldana joins the trio, the dynamic really takes off, with her Adelina acting like a catalyst for Link and Lionel.
A solid bone structure of well-established comedy allows Laika to do what they do best: create situations and visuals that defy the imagination. Even more than Kubo, Missing Link is stuffed with amazing scenery and tremendous set pieces. Our trio’s travels allow for beautiful panoramic vistas from the rugged forests of the American Northwest, to the shrouded mountains of the Himalayas, and literally everywhere in between.
The ocean scenes in Kubo were jaw dropping. Missing Link makes them look like a kid’s bathtub. Lionel’s trip to America features soaring visuals of clouds, birds, and waves. The return trip features an epic storm that surpasses the one in Kubo, where the world turns sideways as the waves lift the giant boat. Inside the ship, Lionel has a frantic chase scene evading a bounty hunter (Timothy Olyphant) that takes on Inception-level physics-bending as the halls shift due to the pitching of the vessel. It’s worth an Oscar just for this scene alone.
There are a few hiccups in Missing Links execution. Sir Lionel never quite deserves his redemption; I felt he’s given a few too many free passes as he learns to notice and value others. Especially, I thought he never really got called to account for being such a cad to Adelina. By the end, one chivalrous turn gets him out of dutch with her and Link, and the end sees him getting pretty much exactly want he wanted, very little changed.
The subplot of Link being proof of evolution, and Lionel’s nemesis opposing him on the grounds of preserving the pre-Darwinian belief structures kind of falls flat. It’s not developed enough to stand alone, and its not tied into anything contemporary to work as a metaphor. Similarly, the militant isolation of the Yeti, and the reason for it (people are awful!) doesn’t get expanded on meaningfully. It makes the semi-villainous actions of the Yeti feel ad hoc.
Evolution in Action.
I’m surprised that Missing Link wound up being such a box office flop. It feels like the most audience friendly outing for Laika yet. The story is fun, well paced, and suitable for kids. The humor is varied enough to entertain all ages. The animation really clicks; it has the oddity and whimsy Laika is known for, but has none of the off-putting elements or questionable creature design found in The Boxtrolls or Kubo. As an adventure story, it really soars in a way that parents and kids can each appreciate.
Missing Link should have found a wider audience. I think it has a very good chance of finally getting Laika that Oscar that has eluded them so far. More than that, I think it shows that Laika is evolving into their niche. They can keep the oddness and outside the box thinking while making an animated film with wide appeal. Hopefully their next outing gets them both the awards and the audience they deserve.