Stop-motion animation studio Laika might not crank out films in rapid succession, but has been incredibly consistent in the high quality of what it does release. Every Laika film has been nominated for an Oscar, and it would be surprising if Missing Link doesn’t wind up with a nomination too. However, it’s by no means Laika’s best film.
Bringing back ParaNorman director Chris Butler, Missing Link follows an explorer who wants to prove that the impossible is not just possible, but is certain. Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman) has a keen eye for cryptozoology. We first meet him in the middle of a chase for the Loch Ness Monster. Nessie gives him a run, but Frost shows himself to be both a fighter and a gentleman. He barely spills a drop of tea while wrangling the giant beast to get a good photo to show the men in his explorers club. When that plan fails, Frost then turns his sights on finding the famous sasquatch of the American Pacific Northwest. There he discovers that not only is Bigfoot real, he even wrote a letter to Frost.
Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis), as he’s called for a spell, is an eight-foot tall beast. Though he’s quite gentle, his stature makes him intimidating to strangers. In true animated fashion, Link is far more than meets the eye. He agrees to give Frost irrefutable evidence of his existence, guaranteeing the explorer’s membership into the boys’ club back home, in exchange for bringing Link to Nepal to meet up with the only others of his kind: the yeti. To help them along the way, they need to get a map from an explorer’s widow (Zoe Saldana) who refuses to be cast aside as another disposable female character.
Visually, Missing Link rises to expectations set forth by previous Laika films. The stop-motion animation is smooth and beautiful, with rich textures that never fail to capture our attention. As Link’s fur sways in the wind or Frost gets out of another skirmish, the technicality of what we’re watching continually impresses.
With globe-spanning travel as a central theme, the film is consistent in its visual language. Using symmetrical framing that would make even Wes Anderson proud, we often see boats and trains and stagecoaches cut from left to right, dead in the middle of the screen. This amps up the charm in an already charming film.
What Missing Link is lacking, however, is a strong emotional connection. Frost has life lessons to learn about ego and loyalty, and Link learns what family is and what it means to belong, but neither serve as audience proxies or as major empathy vehicles. Frost is just a bit too proud to have vulnerability. Link is more outwardly emotional, but is also more a source of humor (at his own expense), and not necessarily relatable. While no movie needs to be universal to be accessible, it’s hard to get attached to anyone here.
Missing Link is a delight and funny enough for the younger crowd, but it’s not the emotional powerhouse we’ve come to expect from Laika.