Laika are great stewards of handmade animation. This makes Missing Link an anomaly of the current form. Where many studios are leaning into digital animation, with perfectly rounded and proportioned characterization, Laika represent the old guard. They have a common understanding that we do not only love films for being immaculate, but for the humanity of their total elements, their virtues and their flaws, a more tangible association with human ingenuity. The titular character, Mr. Link/Susan, is an obtuse avocado shaped derivation of the Sasquatch legend, especially from Laika’s native Pacific Northwest. Missing Link is an endearing entry into a crowded field of Bigfoot animations that stands out as a lovingly created stop motion homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Three makes a trend: whereas Smallfoot (2018) was an inversion of Bigfoot discovering humans, Missing Link is a tale about the need to be found, and later this year, Abominable is about finding lost family. Each share a similar sentiment with the same creatures regressed into children’s mascots. Right now, we all might feel a little lost. Animation can fill the places where we are not being accountable for our children right now. One look at Mr. Link/Susan and the average child might shriek in terror! They are an unusual grotesque, unfit and wearing the expression and body of a creature left in isolation. Their handily underplayed by Zach Galifianakis, who has toned down his personality in order to play an animated character, as one does. His opposite is the lonely myth-hunting explorer Sir Lionel Frost, played by Hugh Jackman with a nice British accent. They make a lovely and endearing team, finding the companionship they always sought within each other.
It’s important to highlight Mr. Link/Susan’s difference from the usual animated character. They may be the first gender binary character in a children’s film, to make an expression that they are as such. Eventually, they say, Link is not a name, only a moniker representing their status as a connection to humanity’s past. No, they’d prefer to go by Susan. A name they picked up from a kind woman who made an impression on them. The film is kind and inclusive in the best way possible, it does not shame the decision, but leaves it as a fact of the character’s worldview, that is how they view themselves, and it must be accepted as presented. This is where the well-acted restraint pays dividends, allowing the character to be anything at all – major kudos to Galifianakis on his nuanced reading. This makes Missing Link a true socially fluid family film, totally free of forced gendering and preconceptions. It withholds a great social value at the center of its startlingly simple conceit.
It may even be surprising just how straight-laced the rest is. Missing Link pulls no further punches. It goes the route of Raiders of the Lost Ark, generally, and doesn’t deter from linear action film logic otherwise. The Indiana Jones influence plays into the film’s globe trotting aesthetic and sense of pacing, lifted from the classic Spielberg picture and lands wonderfully in the world of Laika’s animation. While it is inspired by great adventure cinema, it is not derivative. It’s noted just how difficult making an action film in stop motion must be. If you do go see it, you must stay for the credits where Laika break down how a scene was made.
Laika may have temporarily usurped Aardman who struggled to find anything new to say with last year’s Early Man. It’s wild how much they can accomplish with handmade animation. Missing Link has a range of different environments, all well considered. There’s an outstanding Western outpost set in the forests of Washington State that left us wanting for a proper stop motion Western. There is an immaculate care for design, expressed not only in the character’s feathered layers but in highly detailed practical sets that instill a sense of place. In a film about connection, every part belongs, and withholds all the favors and flaws that only something genuine can produce.
Missing Link is having a rough early go at the box office. If you care about animation, this is an endorsement that this one’s good, and that it would behoove you to go support it. It’s self-evident that this is the kind of high effort, low return work that requires ardent fan support to keep a studio going. The film’s incredible technical work is only slightly hampered by a linear script, which allows it the openness to be the first expressively gender fluid children’s film. We only hope Missing Link does well enough that Laika does not stop animating altogether.