Though cocky as they come, Sir Lionel Frost doesn’t fit the mold of other classical adventure heroes, whether animated or otherwise. In “Missing Link,” the top-heavy monster hunter (imbued with chest-swollen bravado by Hugh Jackman) does a remarkable thing upon discovering a rare Sasquatch in America’s still-untamed Pacific Northwest: He listens.
Compare that with Indiana Jones and centuries of plundering anthropologists, who blithely destroy ancient sites in their pursuit of treasure, and you’ll realize just how unusual Sir Lionel’s reaction is. Though he set out to prove the existence of this primitive ape-man, upon stumbling across the Sasquatch in the wild, rather than hauling the creature back to civilization like some kind of trophy, à la “King Kong,” he stops to ask the beast (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) what it wants, and adjusts his plans accordingly.
Now, most audiences may not even register this nuance, which is just one of myriad ways in which writer-director Chris Butler wrings a more progressive narrative from this most retrograde of genres. As proof that humans can evolve, however, “Missing Link” makes a most excellent case. And that doesn’t even count the cutting-edge technology required to pull of such a hyper-detailed and visually dazzling feat as this.
“Missing Link” marks the fifth feature from Laika, the meticulous stop-motion animation studio responsible for “Coraline” and “Kubo and the Two Strings,” although the tone of this one is so different from the four features that came before — all dark, relatively intense cartoons liable to give young children nightmares — that the company’s grown-up fans may reject it at first. Sooner or later, Laika was bound to branch out, which makes this funnier, more colorful film the link previously missing between the company’s Goth-styled past and whatever comes next.
From the opening scene, Sir Lionel Frost makes monster hunting look easy. He has dragged his assistant to Loch Ness, where it takes little effort to lure the odd-looking legend to the surface, where he proceeds to photograph it — the proof he needs to earn the respect of his peers at the London-based Optimates Club (although, strangely, that he’s a “sir” suggests he’s already been validated by more important people than this snooty society of explorers and “great men”).
Unfortunately for Sir Lionel, Nessie destroys the evidence in a scene that’s conceived and shot as dynamically as anything Laika has done before — early proof that Butler (who previously made “ParaNorman”) is pushing the medium. The rest of the film will bear that out, as “Missing Link” not only expands the geography of previous Laika films but widens the repertoire of how the camera navigates these spaces (the best example being a shot broken down over the end credits, in which the camera swoops around an elephant porter, while digital set extensions give the surrounding jungle a sense of depth).
Watching “Missing Link,” audiences can no longer tell where the practical, stop-motion puppetry ends and computer effects take over. That may sound like a compliment, though the strange hybrid approach serves to obscure the hand-tooled aspect of the film. The result resembles Aardman’s “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” not just in flavor (that film took place at a time of early scientific exploration and featured both Charles Darwin and the queen as characters) but also to the extent that Butler embraces CG in order to deliver a more ambitious film. The truth is, far more of “Missing Link” was crafted in the real world than meets the eye, though audiences’ attention will most likely be fixated on the plot and characters — as well it should be.
All the humans boast memorable, visually humorous looks, with marzipan-colored skin and long, reddish noses, which give off a rosy pink glow when backlit by the sun. In fact, so much attention has gone into the design, performance, and amusingly asymmetrical facial expressions of these characters that the script feels anemic by comparison. In that department, the film seems a little familiar, leaning too heavily on silly wordplay and a constant stream of jokes, as if overcompensating for a certain lack of excitement.
Once Sir Lionel finds his Sasquatch, he’s obliged to deal with the fact that his Optimates Club rival, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), has enlisted a Yosemite Sam-style varmint named Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant) to thwart his quest, even as that quest happens to be changing shape. When Sir Lionel stops to ask Mr. Link what he wants, the creature proposes an altogether new adventure: He wishes to be taken halfway around the world, to Shangri-La, where his cold-weather cousins — a lost tribe of snow-white-haired, blue-skinned yetis — have built a society far removed from the threat of mankind.
Not yet “woke” so much as gradually awakening, Sir Lionel accepts the mission, deputizing Mr. Link as a kind of glorified valet, and together they set off, the world’s most conspicuous traveling companions. But success depends on stealing a map from the woman once married to Sir Lionel’s late partner, Adelina Fortnight (who looks like Salma Hayek, but sounds like Zoe Saldana). As with the Sasquatch, Sir Lionel rejects the bigotry of his peers and welcomes Adelina along for the trek.
Here, one might expect the movie to serve up a series of classic adventure-movie challenges, but instead, it follows a more vaudevillian playbook, wringing laughs from funny disguises and elaborate physical comedy gags. Mr. Link’s clumsiness is almost never amusing, alas, though his literal-minded use of the English language can be quite charming. When the trio finally does reach Shangri-La (where Emma Thompson plays the yetis’ matriarchal leader, “the Elder”), only then does “Missing Link” unveil a series of puzzles for its characters to solve, building up to a quite literal cliffhanger — no, really, the movie dangles ensemble and audience alike over a looming chasm — so intense I could hardly take it.
By this point in Laika’s evolution, the studio has reached a point where every frame is a work of art, which is more than can be said for most computer-animated features. And yet, while “Missing Link” no doubt advances the aesthetic and story possibilities for the company going forward, it comes at a price. The illusion has become so sophisticated, we take the craft for granted.
This may be why Aardman animators don’t go out of their way to remove every fingerprint from their work, or the reason “Anomalisa” opted not to hide the seams the Laika team paints out in post: Part of what makes stop-motion films so impressive is the fact that they’re still sculpted, posed, lit, and photographed by hand. To speak in terms Sir Lionel might appreciate, the Great Pyramids of Egypt stun not only for their beauty and shape, but also because we can’t fathom how they came to be made. Counterintuitive though it may seem, going forward, Laika might do well to take a step back.