Cinema Dispatch: Missing Link

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Missing Link and all the images you see in this review are owned by Laika and United Artists Releasing

Directed by Chris Butler

I feel like I should be a hundred times more supportive of Laika and their filmography; especially considering how they can use all the help they can get.  It’s not that I’ve disliked any of the movies I’ve seen (Coraline, Kubo, and now this), just that despite every they get right they’ve never quite managed to be the best animated films of their respective years and end up feeling like a second tier studio when they are clearly aspiring for the very best; kind of like a Studio Ghibli where they aren’t as prolific or well known as the Disneys and Dreamworks of the world, but have garnered massive respect and influence.  Perhaps they will get there one and (some would say that they are already there) and their latest movie might just be what they need to make that dream that much more within their reach.  Is this yet another masterpiece from one of the most creative animation studios working today or is this a misfire for a studio that can’t afford to have one of those right now?  Let’s find out!!

The movie is set in the late nineteenth century and Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) is the world’s premiere Cryptozoologist before that was a thing as he hunts down mythical creatures like The Loch Ness monster and fails to take decent pictures of them every single time.  It’s a shame because the guy is a certifiable badass, but his deeds fall on less than enthusiastic ears as none believe his wild tales of mythical creatures; least of all the members of the Great Men society who snub his work and laugh behind his back.  Frost is not one to give up however and after receiving a letter telling him that he can find the mysterious Sasquatch in the woods of Washington, he makes a bet with the society’s stuff leader Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) that he will gain acceptance into the organization if he can bring back proof of the creature!  Sure enough, he does manage to find the legendary beast, but the plot starts to thicken as it turns out that Sasquatch can not only talk (Zack Galifianakis) but was also the one who wrote the letter.  You see, he’s the last of his species up here in the Washington forest (I guess the others were all killed in some sort of massacre?) and wants to find safe passage to the Himalayas where he hears that similar creatures known as Yetis have lived for thousands of years, and he can definitely use a few more friends.  Frost agrees to exchange evidence of the creature’s existence in exchange for taking him to his family and dubs him Mr. Link for the rest of the journey, and first mission is that Frost needs a map that is currently being held by an old friend of his Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana) and she’s not about to give it up unless she gets to go on the journey too.  However, Lord Piggot-Dunceby is getting REAL sick of Frost’s buffoonery and decides to hire a hitman (Timothy Olyphant) to kill him whether or not he finds the beast, so that’s something ELSE they’ll have to deal with on top of Mr. Link’s awkward and clumsy behavior as well as the treachery of traveling that far in this day and age.  Will Mr. Link finally be reunited with his own kind and will Frost get the recognition he so desperately craves?  What further challenges await them on their way to the Himalayas, and can their budding friendship endure such hardships?  Seriously, this proper English explorer is traveling with this guy for weeks and he couldn’t spend an hour getting him a PROPER fitted suit!?

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“I tend to carry all my weight here so I need it to have a loose fitting waist and I usually only wear Egyptian cotton, though I will accept the domestic variety if we’re on a budget. ”     “Okay, well I don’t believe ANY of that for a second, so how about a windbreaker?”     “That works too.”

I thought it was pretty good!  The movie is fun, it’s beautiful, and it doesn’t feel bloated or frenzied like so many other films aimed at a younger audience, but it doesn’t quite hit on an emotional level or even have that much to say that would push it into being an animated classic.  Then again, Kubo had all of that and I was still more lukewarm about it than most of my peers, so maybe I’m just too hard to please unless Spider-Man is in it.  Well the world’s not fair and the lack of Spider-Man in this film (and every other film as well) is a noticeable detriment, BUT it still manages to be a fun little adventure of the kind that you wouldn’t really consider fresh or original but done with a lot more artistry than most animated films out there.  Except for Spider-Man of course.

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I mean if there are infinite possibilities through infinite universes, then I guess it’s POSSIBLE for them to Spider-Man in one of them!

What is easily the best thing about this movie is its aesthetic and animation which, shock of all shock, are up to Laika’s usual standards of excellence and are still wholly unique to the current trends in animation; outside of their buddy from another country Aardman.  Because of the innate limitations of the form (they’re definitely using green screen and CG in places but almost all of it is still practical stop motion) it has to be so much more deliberate with what it can animate and the tangible nature of it gives the action so much more weight and dimension than almost any other animated film out there; not to mention that I find physical gags THAT much funnier when it’s happening to something physical.  It all feels more authentic as each action in the film; whether for drama, action, or comedy, has clearer and more palpable consequences than something purely animated that allows for more squash and stretch.  This also means that when the movie DOES go for its big set pieces it hits a lot harder than something that was all bombast all the time, and they do come up with some genuinely unique and entertaining action scenes; particularly a boat chase that goes in all sorts of odd directions and a finale that’s small in scope but no less fun or satisfying to watch.  Very few studios can make movies that are worth watching just to LOOK at, and maybe some of it is just my soft spot for stop motion animation, but Laika always seems to put in that extra effort that puts its animation on par with (and in some cases higher than) modern marvels like the recent

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I mean it may not be Miles Morales jumping off of the building or Batman beating up bad guys while rocking out, but it still looks pretty good!

Where the movie starts to falter however is in the story and it took me a while to really figure out why.  What I ultimately concluded is that the story is kind of just… meh; hardly a revelation that should have taken me so long to realize, but the sheer beauty of it all and its somewhat understated tone (preferring awkward humanity to silly bombast) does a lot to smooth out the rough edges and bolster the slower moments between set pieces.  Still, it feels kind of slight for a movie about finding Sasquatch considering how little of the movie really bothers to even bring that aspect up.  I mean for crying out loud, if a gorilla which we KNOW exists were to board a train in ill-fitting clothes there’d be a lot more commotion than anyone in this movie makes; but then again the environments feel so sparse of other people at times that it’s almost a shock when someone DOES wander into frame who’s not directly connected to the main characters or their quest.  This is certainly another limitation of the medium (you can’t copy paste crowd shots using clay figures like you can if it’s all on a computer) but then perhaps that’s an indication this story isn’t quite suited for this kind of animation style.  Something feels MISSING in this and I think it’s the fact that this setup is that of a road trip movie but then it never really feels like one.  Think of the classics of this genre The Great Race or A Goofy Movie.  They were tightly focused on their main characters to be sure, but the places they went to each had a sense of life to them; like we were just passing through something that was there long before we were and will be there long after we’ve left.  Other than the Washington town at the beginning and the Himalayan town at the end (I guess you could count England as well), it always felt like the locations were utilitarian like the train and the boat.  BEAUTIFULLY realized to be sure, but it still feels like we’re breezing past the most important parts of a movie like this.

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“But I wanted to see Kansas City!”     “NO ONE WANTS TO SEE KANSAS CITY!”     “Says the guy who didn’t want to see North Dakota…”

None of that is necessarily bad as it is disappointing since it means the film isn’t living up to its full potential, but what really brings the movie down a bit is the humor and certain aspects of its premise.  I get the feeling that they were trying to aim for a younger audience with this film as some of its jokes are a lot more juvenile than what we’ve seen in previous movies.  You’ll be sitting there enjoying the scenery and a few witty barbs, but then they’ll throw in a joke about poop and it just kills the mood.  Maybe kids will gravitate towards that kind of stuff more than I do, but for me it felt very incongruous to have such a grounded and rather quiet sense of humor be punctuated by… well, poop.  However, even the humor that feels more natural to the rest of the film’s tone feels a bit rusty in places.  Link’s biggest running gag is that he pretends to understand something but then immediately reveals to everyone that he actually doesn’t know what’s going on which I guess is okay in a fish out of water story such as this one, but they overdo it and barely give him anything else to work with outside of being big and awkward.  Still, I don’t want to sound TOO negative about the humor as it’s definitely a selling point of this considering how much I enjoyed the overall tone and whimsical atmosphere of the whole thing; it just doesn’t stick the landing as much as the animation itself does which makes these two aspects feel slightly mismatched.  The other big problem is that the time period the film takes place in (the late nineteenth century) does make things a little bit awkward with regards to Lionel Frost being a British explore during the era of colonization; especially when on at least one occasion he straight up praises The Empire.  This problem can’t be isolated to a few tone oblivious lines because calling attention to it ends up calling into question (at least for me) other things it ends up doing later on.  Caricature is certainly a legitimate art style, but seeing South Asians portrayed in this movie with exaggerated features starts to raise the ominous specter of being “PROBLEMATIC” when coupled with the aforementioned colonialism backdrop; not in a malicious way but most certainly due to a bit of carelessness on the part of the filmmakers.  Even worse is the moral they try to push at the end of the movie which I can’t get TOO much into without spoiling the ending, but the movie BASICALLY has an anti-ethno state message which is definitely a good thing, but it feels a bit like a Trojan Horse (intentionally or not) when one of the people arguing for it is an empire praising British dude.

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“You can’t just close yourself off from the rest of the world!”     “Right on!”     “Why, it’s just uncivilized to-“     “Okay, see… I was with you at the beginning…”

I guess me and Laika will never be quite on the same wavelength, but I can definitely appreciate a lot of what they do even if I’m not giving them all the credit everyone else does.  It’s quite fun to be sure and I think kids will appreciate it a lot more than tripe like Wonder Park which felt half-hearted and generic in all the ways this film doesn’t.  There’s a lot of competition right now so you’re definitely spoiled for choice if you want to see a movie, but I think this one is worth giving a shot as this studios films are still unique to anything else you’ll see on any given weekend.  We’ve got plenty more superhero films, horror cash ins, and even those awful religious movies down the pipeline, but I don’t think we’re gonna see anything like this this year which is a pretty good endorsement as far as I’m concerned.  Being unique isn’t automatically a positive, and the places where this feels a bit under cooked or uninspired do drag it down a bit, but for something like this I have no problem giving it that little extra push!  Now if they start murmuring about a Laika expanded universe, then I might have to temper my praise going forward.  Oh, who am I kidding? I would TOTALLY be down for a Coraline v Kubo movie!

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