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Non-Review Review: Missing Link

Missing Link is yeti ‘nother triumph for stop motion animation studio Laika.

To be fair, Missing Link is a different beast than Kubo and the Two Strings, the last major release from the studio and one of the most striking (and under-appreciated) animated films of the last decade. Kubo and the Two Strings was a lyrical and powerful fairy tale, a surprisingly weighty meditation on big ideas like the stories that people tell and the losses that they carry around with them. Missing Link is a much lighter film than that, a piece of film that is much less consciously mature in the story that it is telling. This is not to suggest that Missing Link is shallow or superficial, or that it ignores big ideas in favour of small delights. However, Missing Link is a film that foregrounds its visceral thrills over its central themes, and there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that.

Armed and dangerous.

Although Missing Link director Chris Butler co-wrote the script for Kubo and the Two Strings, it is probably more accurate to treat Missing Link as a more mature extension of Butler’s last work for the studio. Missing Link might be seen as a more reflective and introspective take on some of the core ideas of ParaNorman, a similar high-energy romp that meditated upon the relationship that exists between mankind and those things which exist beyond mortal comprehension. Missing Link is sturdily constructed from a narrative perspective, with well-defined characters who are given strong arc and a script that understands both what it is trying to say and how best to say it without tripping over itself. However, the script also understands that it is not the primary draw to Missing Link.

Whereas Kubo and the Two Strings felt like an intricate portrait drawn from the deepest pools of the animators’ imagination, Missing Link is a much more kinetic and dynamic piece. Missing Link is a globe-trotting adventure that spans from the deep blue-green forests of Washington State to the snowy plains of the Hindu Kush. It is the sort of rollicking old-fashioned adventure populated by heroes who spend a lot of time charting train lines and ferry lanes on maps, where obligatory back story is delivered against mesmerising backdrops, and where a variety of energised and imaginative action scenes arrive to a tightly-calculated schedule. Missing Link might lack the complexity of Kubo and the Two Strings, but there’s an infectious dynamism to Missing Link that neatly compensates.

Following their train of thought.

The pleasures of Missing Link are mostly straightforward. Missing Link is a stunningly beautiful piece of work from a visual standpoint, like the other movies produced by Laika. The production design in Missing Link is amazing from top to bottom, reflected in every aspect of production. To be fair, the production design on Laika movies is generally so impressive that this level of craft almost becomes rote, but there are enough beautiful little touches to catch even the most jaded eye. The model work is especially impressive. It is striking, for example, how much the character of Lionel Frost seems to subtly resemble actor Hugh Jackman, albeit with enlongated cheeks, without seeming like a straightforward caricature.

Missing Link is a globe-trotting adventure, following Sir Lionel as he journeys to the United States and later on to Nepal. This journey affords the team working on Missing Link the opportunity to render an impressive array of surroundings for the explorer to traverse. The worlds of Missing Link are obviously more grounded and less abstract than those of Kubo and the Two Strings, but there is still something magical about even the most mundane of surroundings. Although Missing Link is more action-driven than Kubo and the Two Strings, the images still linger: the incomplete shell of a cottage in the forests of Washington State, the deep blues and lushious greens of the vast wilderness, the beautiful browns and yellows of stacked logs arranged like clockwork cogs.

Trying to wrap his brain around it.

Indeed, Missing Link is often mesmerising and entrancing as a piece of pop art. Both a lot of thought and a lot of effort has gone into the structuring of the film, belying the simplicity of its adventurous narrative. The attention to detail extends beyond the figures and the world through which they move. It is a credit to Missing Link that this effort shines through even in scenes that should be mundane. There is always something worth marveling at on screen, even during scenes that should be rudimentary from a narrative perspective; Sir Lionel outlines his grand plan and delivers necessary exposition as he marches by those beautiful assembled logs, an emotional confrontation between Sir Lionel and his old flame Adelina Fortnight takes place on a ship rocking back and forth.

None of this is to ignore the larger pleasures nestled within the film itself. Missing Link often invites its audience to gaze upon the world with the same wonder as Sir Lionel, the stop motion animation affording the viewer the rare opportunity to see something familiar in an entirely new way. The settings of Missing Link are enshrined in the pop cultural consciousness, from “the foothills of the Himalayas” through to the towering majesty of Monument Valley. It takes no small amount of talent to take something instantly recognisable and render it new again. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Laika as an animation studio is that they once again make children of even the most weary of audience members.

Carri(age) on regardless.

That said, while the beauty of Missing Link is often seen within its production design, its charm is reflected in its action and choreography. Appropriately enough, given its title, premise and setting, Missing Link feels very much like a throwback. To modern audiences, Missing Link will most likely and most directly evoke Raiders of the Lost Ark. Both are, after all, the stories of a caddish self-centred explorer who embarks on a dangerous journey towards a mythical goal employing the assistance of a former lover who was a close associate of a recently deceased colleague. Even the choice of locations (Nepal) and the visual language (the use of maps) recall Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Of course, Raiders of the Lost Ark was itself a throwback to a much older style of movie, the exotic globe-trotting adventure. Missing Link feels very much like a conscious update of that template for the twenty-first century; the characters spending a lot of time tracing routes on maps, and even more inside trains or carriages or boats. However, Missing Link is also a film that is driven by propulsive action that often hinges on broad physical comedy. There is an episodic quality to Missing Link that reflects its obvious influences of the older film serials that would have inspired Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indeed, Missing Link occasionally even feels like a collection of set pieces sequenced together, occasionally interspaced with witty jokes and necessary exposition.

A link to the past.

It is hard to complain when these action beats are as memorable and effective as they are. Action sequences (obviously) hinge on the physicality of the actors involve, and Missing Link shrewdly capitalises on the fantastic model work by the production team. The characters in Missing Link are in a more literal sense more elastic than any live action performer, but also carrying more weight than a computer-generated facsimile. The result is an exciting dynamism, the characters feeling more tangible as they bound and fall and grip and clutch. There is an endearing physicality to Missing Link, one that evokes the broader slapstick stylings of the older films that the movie is attempting to emulate; a saloon brawl, a clumsy attempted robbery, an ice city escape.

The script is shrewd enough not to get in its own way, generally trusting the production team to deliver on individual scenes and sequences. Missing Link lacks the lyrical and poetic quality of Kubo and the Two Strings, but that feels like a conscious choice. The script for Missing Link is effectively a delivery mechanism for the jokes, set pieces and superlative animation. On those terms, it is more than functional. Butler’s dialogue is generally playful and witty, and handed over to a cast who are more than capable of delivering it. The story sets up its themes and character arcs in a very simple and straightforward manner; Sir Lionel’s journey might be as personal as it is literal, but that journey is as easy to chart as any train ride across the greater United States.

Letter have it.

There are glimmers of broader social and political commentary nestled within Missing Link, with Butler demonstrating an understanding of the potential perils and pit falls of adapting what is essentially a colonial narrative of “discovery” to the modern era. This is most obvious with the clever suggestion that the eponymous creature “discovered” himself, rather than being discovered. It is also reflected in the villainous Lord Piggot-Dunceby, contrasted with the more open-minded (if self-involved) Sir Lionel. Sir Lionel might have internalised the habits of empire; Piggot-Dunceby wears them proudly, convinced is he of the role of “great men” in shaping the world to their wishes. Piggot-Dunceby is the archetypal villain in narratives like this; small-minded, terrified of the unknown.

However, Missing Link makes a point to tie Piggot-Dunceby to broader concerns. The fiend is as concerned about the looming threat of women’s suffrage as monsters roaming the American wilderness. Piggot-Dunceby has a fixed view of how the world should be, and is threatened by anything that challenges the established order. (This pointedly includes the science of “evolution.”) There are a few moments when the script seems a little too broad and a little too clumsy in its articulation of Piggot-Dunceby’s world views. Nevertheless, the film employs some wonderful visual storytelling; for all that Missing Link is a story about the mythical big foot, the most monstrous site of a foot in the film is Piggot-Dunceby resting his foot atop a map of the world, convinced of its place there.

“Where did you find your man servant?”
“On MissingLinkedIn.”

Missing Link is not quite as well-developed and as striking as Kubo and the Two Strings, but it doesn’t aspire to be. Missing Link sets out to be a rollicking globe-trotting adventure. It doesn’t necessary explore uncharted territory, but it still offers a breathtaking tour of majestic sights. Missing Link is perhaps a more basic sort of delight than Kubo and the Two Strings, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

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