I have a rocky history with Studio Laika films and films like this are why. The Oregon based studio is one of the only producers of stop motion animation and when they commit to a film the results are always breath taking. Their last film, Kubo and the Two Strings, was their most ambitious venture yet, breaking the world record for largest stop motion puppet, a 16 foot 400 pound skeleton that appears in the film for less than 1 minute. This is to say nothing of the 200 puppets made for the film. This amount of work shows just how far this studio is willing to go to perfect this art form, and it’s great to see them rewarded for their efforts. Kubo is currently the only animated film to be nominated for both “Best Animated Film” and “Best Visual Effects” at the Oscars. It’s beautiful, really it is. That’s why I can’t stand watching all this work being wasted on lackluster scripts.
The scope of the labor that goes into these films is hidden from many audience members. Stop motion animation is an extremely tedious and lengthy process. In order to get one film, puppets are crafted, sets are produced, and each and every frame is photographed. Everything is captured in camera, this is as live action as animation can get. For this film alone, 100,000 individual character faces were crafted, over 100 separate sets, 65 unique locations. Laika are the best at what they do, full stop. Even Wes Anderson on the rare occasion he delves into the stop motion arena can’t hold a candle to the shear scope and jaw dropping smoothness that Laika conjures up with every film they make, Link included. The cinematography is consistently lush and vibrant, just plain nice to look at, really. In absolutely no way do I want to understate just how technically impressive this film is. The scripts need to be better, and quick.
Despite the awards and the universal acclaim Studio Laika has received over its lifetime, their movies have never been Box Office darlings. As a matter of fact, interest seems to drop with every film. Coraline, their first film, grossed 75.3 mil, it’s been downhill ever since. (Paranorman – 56m, Boxtrolls – 50.8m, Kubo – 48m) Now, we seem to have hit the absolute bottom. Missing Link has had a historically bad opening weekend, breaking the record for weakest launch for any film released into 3,200+ screens. You can see the full scope of just how bad Link did here. While I can definitely say that Link deserves better, the quality of the film, past its amazing visuals, doesn’t do it any favors.
Missing Link was written and directed by Laika’s in house writer, Chris Butler. Butler has written 3 of Laika’s 5 films, and directed two, including Missing Link. The plot of Missing Link follows a Victorian era adventurer, Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), his former lover Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), and the Bigfoot, Mr. Link (Zack Galifanakis), as they journey across the world in hopes of finding a refuge of Yeti’s for Mr. Link to join.
The biggest issue the film has is its main character Sir Frost, is lukewarm. All three of the main trio are bland but, Frost is the lead and the other two exist to support his personal journey, the bulk of the weight rests on him to have an arc worthy of supporting. He doesn’t.
Frost has many flaws but, the film at large doesn’t seem interested in exploring any of them, letting us watch as he overcomes his flaws in order to emerge a changed character by the end of the film. They never go as far as the setting would allow. Seeming genuinely afraid to fully pursue what one would assume to be the whole point of making a film with this setting, these characters, and this plot specifically.
Sir Lionel Frost is a man of his time, a 19th century English explorer, who is fascinated by human evolution. This is an archetype we have seen before; Frost is a British Imperialist. Not directly, of course, but it was distracting to see a film take place in the time of social Darwinism and rampant unapologetic colonialism and imperialism AND be about a white male explorer who must share the spotlight with a woman and a literal representation of a lesser evolved human, and then just never talk about it. Except for when they do…
Our main villain is Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephan Fry), a clear caricature of British nobility. His motivations are left unclear and we don’t know what his problem with Frost is specifically. The film as a whole doesn’t go as far as it needs to in order to set up a compelling arc for our main character. Piggot-Dunceby is obviously, a sexist, and inferably, a racist as well. Frost, our hero, did look up to him at one point in time. The story could expand on this relationship by having our hero realize that the views of his onetime mentor require a bit of evolution… it isn’t though.
I understand that this is a children’s movie first and foremost, but the topics of sexism and racism have definitely been handled in children’s media before, they shouldn’t set up the punch if they’re too afraid to throw it. Frost was never allowed to be flawed enough as to appear unlikable, his sexism is played off for laughs, his uncaring nature towards Mr. Link is remedied almost immediately. If this is to be the story of a man who evolves past his prejudices and learns to see women and… Sasquatches as his equals, then… sure, it’s weird that Black people are represented by literal animals but, whatever; we’ve got ourselves a story! If that’s not what’s happening here, then I’m not sure what is. We have several characters here that don’t fundamentally change by the end of the film. Fortnight wanting to become an adventurer doesn’t mean much because her arc was never about proving herself as an adventurer. If Frost was harder on her, more dismissive of her, or if she was harder on herself, unaware that she had what it took to do what Frost does, then her character would have somewhere to go. Mr. Link ends up as Frosts assistant but, never proves himself worthy of the position. Give him some useful traits and skills, he could be a botanist, able to distinguish poisonous plants or name rare ones. The characters held one note the entire movie, that doesn’t make for interesting viewing.
Missing Link simply doesn’t delve deep enough into the goals and motivations of the characters to craft a story worth the back breaking work that went into realizing it. Link will likely continue the downward spiral Studio Laika is no doubt accustomed to by now. I can only hope that their next venture puts the story on the same level as the visuals.
|STUDIO:||Laika, Annapurna Pictures|
|RELEASE DATE:||April 12 2019|