Over the last decade there have been quite a few groups attempting to disrupt the animation world that has been pretty solidified by Disney and Pixar. Last year’s amazing Into the Spider-Verse was one of the biggest examples of this, really trying to evolve what we think an animated film can be, but another studio that I’ve been a huge fan of has been Laika. Stop motion animation is nothing new, it’s been one of the older tricks of film-making. But, Laika has been producing stop motion animated films with such a staggering quality and technical ability to really breathe new life into the subgenre. And, by and large, I’ve really loved all of their movies. The Boxtrolls is just kind of fine, but all of their other movies have been stone-cold masterpieces. The creepy Neil Gaiman horror of Coraline, the macabre weirdness of Paranorman, and the epic mythmaking of Kubo and the Two Strings have all been absolutely timeless movies, and usually end up becoming some of my favorite films of each year they’re released. So, by this point, I’ve become incredibly in the bag for Laika productions, basically guaranteeing I’m going to see whatever films they release in the theaters with a fair amount of confidence that I’m going to love them. Although, I was a little concerned about their latest film, Missing Link. When it was first announced I found myself becoming really excited by the proposition that Laika would be tackling a story about cryptids. But, the first few trailers just didn’t inspire all that much confidence, coming across as a bit more goofy and silly than the previous films. Which, is by no means a problem, they are making films for families after all, it would stand to reason that they’d want to make something a little more kid-friendly. But, those worries were by and large unfounded, because much to my joyful surprise, I really enjoyed Missing Link, and it just continued the fantastic streak that Laika has been on.
The film follows a man named Sir Lionel Frost, a globe-trotting adventurer who is obsessed with joining and elite club for explorers in London, and who has convinced himself that the key to accomplishing that is to explore the odder corners of the world. He isn’t content with finding new lands, he’s obsessed with proving the existence of mythological beings, such as the Loch Ness Monster, which he does find, but isn’t able to get a quality photograph of. And yet, no matter what he does, he can’t gain the respect of the other explorers, specifically their leader Lord Piggot-Dunceby. However, Frost has a new possible source of fame and fortune, because he’s gotten a letter from the United States claiming to have proof of the existence of the Sasquatch. So, after bragging to the other adventurers, Frost sets out for Washington state, unaware that Lord Piggot-Dunceby has also sent a bounty hunter named Willard Stenk to follow Frost just in case he’s correct. And, after journeying halfway around the world Frost does come across the Sasquatch. And, he’s not what he expected. The Sasquatch is actually rather articulate and sensitive, and is in actuality the person who reached out to him. But, the Sasquatch doesn’t want Frost to just “discover” him, he wants his help. It turns out that the Sasquatch is the last of his kind, but he believes that there are creatures similar to him in the Himalayas called yetis. So, in exchange for giving Frost the fame for discovering Sasquatches, the pair will travel together to the Himalayas so the Sasquatch, who Frost names Mr. Link, can be with his own kind.
However, that does mean that they need to find out where the yetis live. Luckily, a former colleague of Frosts’s was supposed to have found the location of Shangri La before dying. So, with Stenk on their tails, Frost and Link head to talk to Adelina Fortnight, the widow of Frost’s colleague, and a former lover of Frost’s. She doesn’t want to part with the map to Shangri La though, unless she gets to come with. So, the trio make their way back across the United States and depart on a steamer, heading for India. And, while on the ship Frost and Mr. Link grow closer as friends, and Mr. Link even gives himself the first name of Susan. And, after a fight with Stenk they manage to get to India and begin a trek towards the Himalayas. There they come across a guide that helped Adelina’s husband who takes them to the mysterious land of Shangri La, home of the yeti. There they present themselves before the yeti queen, and learn some bad news. The yetis looked down on the Sasquatches, and they have absolutely no interest in keeping Susan around. And, they also don’t want them to tell anyone about Shangri La, so they decide to just keep them prisoners. But, working together our three heroes manage to escape, only to run into Stenk and Lord Piggot-Dunceby who have arrives to steal Frost’s credit. But, using teamwork our three heroes are able to defeat both Stenk and Piggot-Dunceby, surviving their trip to the Himalayas with a new goal in life. Adelina heads off to form a new legacy as her own person, and Frost and Susan begin life as a duo, heading off to discover the truth about Atlantis.
Like I said, I was a little concerned that this film wasn’t really going to be up my alley. And, after the sheer majesty of Kubo and the Two Strings, it just seemed a little odd that Laika would be making such a drastic change in tone and scope, putting out something that seemed worryingly close to their version of Cars, a creatively bankrupt movie to make money to fund their more legitimate projects. But, thankfully, this movie just had really terrible marketing. Because it’s a really great time. Which, I maybe could have convinced myself of earlier if I’d realized that it was directed by Chris Butler, the director of my personal favorite Laika film, ParaNorman. Both are dealing with very strange aesthetics, juggle a whole lot of goofy humor and shockingly deep emotion, and tell fun little puply stories that you just don’t typically see in family entertainment. The trailers for this movie seemed to be showing off a very confined film, primarily slapstick humor in small locations, but the movie ended up being so much more vast than I’d ever have guessed. At times it felt like an Indiana Jones movie, full of crazy action, clever fights, and globe-trotting sights, all while being propped up with a really solid story and characters. The animation, as usual, is absolutely stunning, really questioning what sort of dark pacts that the people at Laika made in order to accomplish such miraculous stop-motion, especially by pulling off so much of the slapsticky humor involved. But, the real draw for me ended up being a story that I feel is fertile ground for kids movies, but that always delights me to find.
When it became clear that this was going to be a movie not only about a Sasquatch, but specifically about the idea that he’s a missing link in human evolution, it became pretty obvious that the principle villain would represent a conservative mindset, someone not willing to accept change and new science. And, that’s what we got. But, that story ended up becoming something much more important as it went on, especially when we started to get a feeling for the society these isolationist yetis have created. Because at that point the movie positions itself in a place of rebellion. It’s am movie about about ignoring the old guard, burning down expectations, and doing your own thing. Frost wants acceptance from the system, but is constantly getting burned for trying to accomplish that in a new way. Susan wants to be accepted for who he is, and ends up being rejected because he’s not perfectly like a group of elites. Adelina wants a life of adventure, but is only seen as a widow, someone who must sit at home quietly wasting away. But, by the end of the movie they all three realize that they owe nothing to these old ways of thinking, and dare to do something innovative. They live their own lives and become their own people. They may get shunned by the old guard, but they realize that that doesn’t matter. That times change, and they’d rather be ostracized and do what they believe in than be confined to the specific box that their societies have placed them in. And, that’s a great message for kids to learn. The world is changing, rapidly, and it seems like every day we get some thinkpiece or editorial from someone decrying the fact that the younger generations are doing things the right way, that they’re daring to be different. And movies like Missing Link proudly tell those younger generations that they’re doing the right thing, and that it’s perfectly acceptable to just ignore the complaints of generations who don’t want things to change.
Missing Link was written and directed by Chris Butler and released by Laika, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk