Over the last decade, the Portland, Oregon-based Laika Studios has not only revived old-school stop-motion animation, albeit with a CG gloss as needed, it’s produced a series of startlingly high-quality films, starting with Coraline and continuing with ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, Kubo & the Two Strings, and now their latest triumph, writer-director Chris Butler’s Missing Link, a Victorian-era set fantasy-adventure that gives Laika a perfect five-for-five record. Each film has stretched and expanded the limits of labor- and time-intensive stop-motion animation while also pushing the boundaries of family-oriented storytelling. Each film mixed humor, drama, characters, and, of course, stop-motion animation into a unique whole unlike anything in cinemas over the last decade.
In Missing Link, Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman), a minor aristocrat, dilettante crypto-zoologist, and the embodiment of Victorian-era British exploration (colonialism by another name), makes an outsized bet he soon comes to semi-regret: Bring actual, living proof of a so-called Sasquatch/missing link to England and the ultra-exclusive, old-boys-club he wants to join or leave in shame, humiliated for the remainder of his natural life. Frost represents the clueless, self-centered, willfully ignorant face of British colonialism, but it’s Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), the ostensible leader of the old boys club who represents British imperialism at its worst. He has nothing but contempt for anyone – or anything – non-British. He’s also enough a classicist that he sees Frost as a usurper, an outsider who has no place in the old boys club.
The conflict between Frost and Lord Piggot-Dunceby takes a backseat, however, to Frost’s latest adventure: He receives a curiously anonymous letter concerning a living, breathing Sasquatch in the Pacific Northwest. He jumps at the chance, Indiana Jones-style (including maps), making his way across the Atlantic Ocean and North America to reach the muddied streets of a no-name town and the letter sender: Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis), a lonely, literal-minded Sasquatch, likely the last of his kind, who wants to be reunited with his long-lost Yeti cousins in the Himalayas. Seeing an even better opportunity to prove Lord Piggot-Dunceby wrong with even more proof, Frost agrees to guide Mr. Link back across North America, Europe, and finally Asia and the Himalayas. Before they can start their journey, Mr. Link goes “undercover” as a decidedly non-average, super-hairy, 8-foot traveler in ill-fitting human clothes and a bowler hat.
They also need an ultra-detailed map of the Himalayas created by the late husband of Frost’s former flame, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), a Latina with a fiery temper, a lifelong grudge against the selfish, egotistical Frost, and a tendency to mix Spanish and English. As a character, Adelina veers uncomfortably close to caricature, but she’s saved by a fierce independent streak that clearly sets her apart from typical female characters: She might be Frost’s marginal love interest and function as his conscience on multiple occasions (in short helping him become a better man), but she’s a life and interests of her own that point her in a different direction than Frost or Mr. Link. Ultimately, however, the mismatched trio have to learn a few, hard-won life-lessons – or really Frost does, since he’s borderline non-redeemable when Missing Link begins but becomes a cheer- and root-worthy progressive man (a man well ahead of his time) – by the time Missing Link reaches its third-act climax in the Himalayas.
And all throughout, there’s Laika’s unparalleled stop-motion animation. Practically every frame deserves discrete, studied attention. All of the globe-hopping also allows for Laika’s production team to create distinctly different locations, from Victorian-era England to a one-horse town in the Pacific Northwest, and, of course, the fluted mountains of the High Himalayas. As always with Laika, character designs tend towards the singular, often grotesque. Frost is all legs and angles (like his sharp, knife-like nose), while Mr. Link (first name, Susan) looks like a giant, rotund fur ball with loose-limbed appendages. The barrel-chested Lord Piggot-Dunceby contrasts with the diminutive, oleaginous Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), the Lord’s chief henchman.