By Ben Pivoz
When people discuss American feature animation, they tend to talk about Pixar or Disney. Those two certainly have had the longest track records of success. However, over the last decade, stop-motion animation company Laika has made a case for belonging in that conversation. Their first four outings (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls and Kubo and the Two Strings) were complex, smart, funny and exciting. They are all character-based, with interesting stories, aspects not always found in family entertainment. The studio’s latest is Missing Link, a comedic adventure that is good fun, even if it does not reach the level of Laika’s best.
Sir Lionel Frost is an adventurer with a special interest in mythical creatures. In an effort to get into a prestigious club for explorers, he embarks on a quest to locate the missing link between ape and man. After not much difficulty, he finds Mr. Link and they strike a deal: Sir Lionel will help him seek out the yeti (he believes they are his cousins); in exchange, he will give Sir Lionel proof of his existence to take to his doubters.
An important part of making a story like this entertaining are the characters. The audience has to care enough to be invested in them achieving their goal. Missing Link makes that very easy. Mr. Link is a genuinely lovable creation. Voiced by comedian Zach Galifianakis, he is friendly, trusting and honest. The trouble he gets into is out of naiveté and a lack of familiarity with the world outside his cave. His childlike straightforwardness is responsible for a lot of the laughs. Despite his fantastical nature, Galifianakis has no problem keeping him relatable. Hugh Jackman also scores as Sir Lionel, a selfish social-climber looking to use this creature for his own gain. The rest of the strong voice cast includes Zoe Saldana as a fellow adventurer, Stephen Fry as the narrow-minded head of the exclusive Optimates Club, Jewish actor Matt Lucas as his abused assistant and Timothy Olyphant as a slimy hired gun.
One of the biggest charms of any Laika movie is the animation. There is something beautiful and personal about stop-motion. Unlike computer animation, it does not try to look realistic. The movement is a little clunky and the character designs are more exaggerated. Nonetheless, the level of detail is just as high. You can sense the meticulousness that goes into every frame. The way Link lumbers or Sir Lionel struts is a significant piece of who they are. The imperfections (put there intentionally) are not a distraction because the way things move becomes a part of the story.
Their dedication to story sets them apart from most modern animation studios as much as their style does. Missing Link is a comedy that never sacrifices character for wacky gags. Everything comes from the personalities. What the characters learn from their adventure, and how it helps them grow, is what really matters. So even though there is some action and a lot of laughs, it is grounded in hopes, dreams and desires.
There have already been quite a few family films released this year; this is probably the most purely entertaining. Missing Link continues Laika’s string of artistic successes. It is clever, likable, enjoyable to look at and just a good time at the theater. It is not their best (that would be the brilliant Kubo), but it is their funniest. The creativity on display in every facet of the production is delightful. I eagerly anticipate their next effort.
3¾ out of 5
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Read Ben’s previous review: The Mustang