Despite their consistent critical acclaim and cult affection, Laika is a studio that seems to get surprisingly little mainstream love. Coraline has gotten its fair share over time, but Kubo and the Two Strings received very little attention for being, in my opinion, one of the best films of 2016, and Paranorman is often brought into conversations on the most underrated animations in recent years. As a longtime fan, I feel determined to keep waving the flag for them, keeping their brand of complex and challenging stop motion animation for kids known amongst their friends. But as much as I enjoyed parts of Missing Link, I can’t sing its praises in quite the same way.
The film follows the caddish adventurer Lionel Frost as he attempts to barter his way into an association for explorers, helmed by Lord Piggot-Dunceb, a cruel traditionalist with no interest in scientific or societal progression. After he receives a mysterious letter instructing him to come to the Pacific Northwest to find the famous Sasquatch, Frost sets out on a journey with this surprisingly friendly beast, on a quest to find his true home. The two lead characters are ultimately both likable and lent solid vocal performances from Hugh Jackman and Zach Galifianakis respectively, and of course, their designs and animation are particularly impressive. While this story does open up some interesting conversations about colonialism, particularly for British and American children not taught in schools about it beyond the Glorious Empire, it could certainly go a little deeper.
Various cracks at the attitudes and crimes of the British are alluded to; comments from Piggot calling Link a ‘monster’ are clearly intended to bring xenophobic attitudes to mind, and the visual symbolism of the same character darkening a map painted on the ground as he walks across it suggests the scope of the Empire’s atrocities. But regrettably, much of this is left entirely as subtext for adults, and the remainder of the story is a buddy-adventure tale where the main concern is Lionel being nicer. This can obviously still relate to the British moving beyond this period of history, but frankly, I found myself wanting the film to be from Link’s perspective instead on more than one occasion – at times it felt like a rehash of the character arc in The Pirates! by rival studio Aardman.
But putting these narrative concerns aside, the visuals and direction were as stunning and charming as ever. Tied only with Kubo as having the most ambitious production design, the look of every character and country they come across is distinct and adds dearly to the storytelling. Link’s rounded frame and gangly limbs are coated in seemingly infinite amounts of red tufts, his long nose and low mouth giving a humble, shy appearance, particularly when juxtaposed with the pointed chin and cocky smirk of Frost. And I still can’t get over how beautiful water looks under Laika’s watchful eye – every wave and ripple is rendered in azure and navy with an absurd amount of care and detail.
Normally, I would feel as though I could recommend a Laika film to anybody, as their oddness and intrigue transcends the need for a target audience. But in the case of Missing Link, I find myself wishing I’d seen it when I was younger and less critical, because for most adults, the simplistic story and underdeveloped themes may not be enough to hold your attention unless beautiful animation is enough.