Story of Friendship and Acceptance is Benign But Bland
DIRECTED BY CHRIS BUTLER/2019
A few months ago I switched to a vegetarian diet which means trying a lot of new recipes. The new Laika Studio movie Missing Link reminds me of a few of the recipes I’ve tried. The ingredients sound promising and the resulting dish is certainly edible, but it’s lacking in flavor and ultimately unsatisfying.
Laika has made some great, unique animated films: Coraline, ParaNorman, Kubo and the Two Strings. Chris Butler, (ParaNorman) wrote and directed Missing Link, a story that is a cup of Around the World in 80 Days and a half cup of Lost Horizons, with a pinch of western thrown in. Hugh Jackman is Sir Lionel Frost, a British adventurer in pursuit of mystical creatures like the Loch Ness Monster. Frost seeks acceptance into an exclusive geographical club, dominated by a boastful explorer named Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry). Having received a lead on the location of a Sasquatch, Frost presses Piggot-Dunceby into a bet. If he can provide proof that the Sasquatch is real, he will be admitted into the club. Piggot-Dunceby, determined not to be humiliated by Frost, decides to fix the deal by hiring an assassin to make sure Frost never returns.
After following his lead to Washington state, Frost finds his Sasquatch with little difficulty, because the Sasquatch – or the “missing link” – wants to be found. Link is a gentle giant covered in orange fur. He’s taught himself to read and write, but as the last Sasquatch in the Pacific Northwest, he’s terribly lonely. Link has read that there are Yetis in the Himalayas and seeks help from Frost, the famous creature hunter, to find them so that he can live with those more like himself.
The rest of the Missing Link continues this globe-hopping quest. Frost disguises Link as his assistant (that this works requires suspension of disbelief even in an animated film about a talking Sasquatch) and heads not just for the Himalayas but specifically, for Shrangri-La. Frost and Link are joined by Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), the widow of one of Frost’s fellow explorers. And at every step they are pursued by Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant) the assassin hired by Piggot-Dunceby.
The trip is not without setbacks, but our intrepid band reaches Shrangi-La only to be surprised by what they find there. Yes, the tales of the Yetis are true but identity and inclusion are more complicated than Link (now calling himself Susan) anticipated. Fortunately, Frost has been learning his own lessons along the way about friendship and the futility of looking for validation in all the wrong places. Of course there is a final confrontation with both of the film’s villains, but Missing Link ends on a warm and fuzzy – or perhaps furry – note.
So what was wrong with this fusion dish of a film? Not the stop-motion animation. The human characters are all sharp angles and exaggerated shapes – a stylistic choice I didn’t love, that may just be me. But the natural world of the film is gorgeous, and Link/Susan himself is wonderfully rendered, with his huge hands and feathery fur.
The movie’s political messaging is a bit much in spots, but it will be largely welcome to progressive viewers. Piggot-Dunceby is just colonialism dressed up as a person, with his disregard for life and interest only in conquest. With his hostile response to evolution, he also represents the growing anti-science movement. The scrappy, independent Adelina gives the movie a feminist edge. There’s a gentle, funny nod to gender-nonconformity in Link/Susan’s choice of his own name. But the real meat of the film’s messaging is in the interaction between Link/Susan and his Yeti kin. Racism and immigration fears are under the microscope here. One of the film’s funniest lines – “The people we don’t want here are trying to escape!” – could plausibly be heard from some of our current administration’s officials.
The real problem with Missing Link is that it isn’t funnier. Susan (let’s now honor his wishes, and call him by his chosen name) is voiced by Zach Galifianakis. ZACH GALIFIANAKIS. He’s one of the most gifted film comedians working today, but in Missing Link he seems restrained, as if he was pulling back through the entire film. The jokes about his size and literalism are moderately funny at first, but wear thin as the film goes on. Jackman and Saldana are fine, but their characters are not given much to work with. Frost is single-minded to a fault; Fortnight is fiery and loyal. That’s basically all you need to know about those characters. The best work comes from the villains, especially Olyphant, whose distinctive voice is perfect for the wiry, weasley Stenk. Not all animated films have to be funny, but this one is intended to be. It’s marketed as a family comedy. I can admire the animation, acknowledge the messaging, but if the film is not making me laugh consistently it’s bound to be a disappointment.
I saw Missing Link with a young teen and we both reacted to the film with a shrug. It’s fine, I guess, but forgettable. It doesn’t taste bad, but it will leave you wanting something with more flavor.