Missing Link 

The latest from Laika is a stop-motion wonder with a kind heart

Lost Horizon was Frank Capra's dream project. After the runaway success of It Happened One Night, he got Columbia Studios to bankroll the literary adaptation for $1.25 million — the largest film budget to date in 1936. It took Capra about three months to blow through that budget shooting the story of an English diplomat who crashes in the Himalayas and accidentally finds Shangri-La. When he and his crew manage to leave the sheltered valley's utopia, ruled by a benevolent High Lama philosopher-king, and return to civilization, he finds the "real world" is not all its cracked up to be.

Missing Link, the latest film from the animation studio Laika, takes a lot of inspiration from Lost Horizon. Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman) bears a physical and attitudinal similarity to Ronald Colman, embodying all of the stuffy hubris of the late-stage British Empire. But even though he has a peerage title, Sir Frost still feels like an outsider. He wants desperately to be a member of the Explorer's Club, one of those oak-walled institutions where great men, surrounded by taxidermied animal heads, drink brandy from snifters and brag about their deeds amid clouds of cigar smoke. Derided as a "monster hunter," Sir Frost enters into a bet with the Explorer's Club leader, the unsubtly named Lord Piggot Dunceby (Matt Lucas); if he can return from a trip to America with proof of the existence of the Sasquatch, he will be admitted to the fold. But when he finds the Bigfoot (Zach Galifianakis), it's a little anti-climactic. There's no epic battle in the wilderness, but instead a conversation with a shy, self-depreciating, and unexpectedly articulate beast. Sasquatch, who takes on the name Mister Link, is lonely, and wants Sir Frost's help to travel to Shangri-La, where he can live among the Yeti.

click to enlarge There’s plenty of heart to be found in Chris Butler’s new stop-motion film, Missing Link.
  • There’s plenty of heart to be found in Chris Butler’s new stop-motion film, Missing Link.

Laika is an animation studio, but it doesn't create with 3D computer animation like Pixar or Dreamworks. Created by Nike founder Phil Knight and his son Travis, and based in Oregon, Laika is hands down the best stop motion animation operation on the planet. The opening sequence of Missing Link, where Sir Lionel and his ill-tempered assistant pipe bagpipe music into the depths of Loch Ness to flush out its monstrous inhabitant, is an absolute tour de force of the painstaking, time consuming technique. We're so inured to weightless CGI wonders that when the camera rushes in from far away and wheels around the tiny boat bobbing in the dark Scottish loch, it's hard to believe that this is a real camera, really moving across an actual tiny landscape, built on a soundstage. Ray Harryhausen, the stop motion super genius who created the iconic alien spaceships in Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, married stop motion and live action with the skeleton battle in Jason and the Argonauts, and brought the Medusa to life in Clash of the Titans, never worked out how to move his camera like this.

Using computer-controlled rigs for complex stop motion was pioneered in the 1970s by John Dykstra in Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Laika's productions use it as one tool in an extensive kit. The highest profile stop motion on TV is on Adult Swim's Robot Chicken, which mostly uses it to put G.I. Joe action figures in compromising situations. The credits to Missing Link include an entire rapid prototyping and 3D printing department, used to create the character puppets. One of the highlights of a Laika production are behind-the-scenes shots in the credits where they let you in on just a little bit of their magic. In this case, it is the creation of a ride through the Indian rainforest on elephant-back by Mister Link, Sir Frost, and his ex-girlfriend Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana). It's as mind-blowing to watch the craftsmen work as it is to watch the results.

If only the other elements of Missing Link were as strong as the visuals, we'd have a masterpiece on our hands. The images are the equal of Pixar, but the scripting of Missing Link is no Toy Story. The character arcs — Sir Frost moving from self-involved colonial adventurer to empathetic explorer, Mister Link carving out a place in the world and accepting his own strangeness — are admirable in concept but dry in execution. Chris Butler's globetrotting screenplay lacks the mythic weight of his last script for Laika, Kubo and the Two Strings. Galifianakis is a comedy heavyweight, but even he can't salvage dad-joke exchanges like "I'm very literal. / You don't say? / I do say!"

But for the younger members of the audience, at whom Missing Link is aimed, this is a far, far better story than say, The Angry Birds Movie, which will be getting a sequel this year. If you're an animation fan, Missing Link's visual wonders deserve a viewing on the big screen.

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