Monday, July 15, 2024

‘Missing Link’ Puts Its Best Foot Forward

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Missing Link is a good old fashioned cross-continent adventure story with a prickly, observant sense of humor. It helps that the stop-motion digital photography allows for some truly breathtaking visuals and action scenes.  The movie houses are positively flooded with action and adventure movies these days. Except most movies are heavy on the action and sparse on the adventure.

Chris Butler’s Missing Link comes from Laika Studios, the studio who gave us Kubo and the Two Strings. Much like Kubo, the story has a sweeping epic feel to it all. More grounded and simpler, it is nonetheless a meticulously crafted children’s film. It reminds us that there is room for joy, imagination, and thoughtfulness in a children’s movie not made by Pixar or Disney.

The animation style is a mix of sharp angles and soft round edges. These contracts allow for a visually interesting and arresting landscape. At times it seems real, such as when Butler and his team cut to that old classic visual short cut of a long journey-a map.

Oh sure, the map looks real, though we know it is not. But it doesn’t look real like it would in a Pixar movie. It looks real enough and it’s that subtle difference that separates the two studios. Missing Link has no interest in replicating reality down to the movement and fine details of hair follicles. Butler and company are much more fascinated with how their world doesn’t look precisely like ours but instead resembles ours.

Upholding all this style and animation, though, are two simple stories. One is about a great explorer and a great man Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) who learns to become a good man. The other is about an earnest, curious, sweet-hearted sasquatch named Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis) who discovers home is wherever he is. Both have a yearning to belong to a society or group that wants nothing to do with them.

Galifianakis side-steps playing Link as a Galifianakis character. He often plays caricatures as opposed to characters, and usually the same ones. Awkwardly weird, stoned, and lacking in basic social graces, the Galifianakis character can often be grating because they are characters less rooted in anything beyond kooky.

But here, Galifianakis lends his voice in such a straightforward way that I had to remind myself who was playing Link. Such as when Link misunderstands a metaphor only to figure it out. “Oh- ho-I see you, mister!” He brings a sweetness and a vibrant enthusiasm to the character.

Jackman’s role is thankless but no less superb. Pompous and braggadocio are two traits Jackman can exude in his sleep. Butler’s script allows Jackman to go broad. A style he has always felt comfortable with, and to the surprise of no one, nails it. Yet, when the crucial scene comes and Lionel must take a side, it takes a talent like Jackman’s to sell it.

Lionel wishes to be a member of an exclusive gentlemen’s club of great explorers led by Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry). If ever there was a character name that cried out to be voiced by Fry, Lord Piggot Dunceby is it. It is a name that could have been dreamed up by P.G. Wodehouse himself.

The script, also by Butler, is sly but not without moments of tenderness. While trying to ascertain a name for Link, Lionel asks his opinion. Link thinks and replies, “Susan.” “But that’s a girl’s name!” “I know.”

Lionel looks off into the distance. He shrugs, smiles, and with sincerity says, “It suits you.” We live in an era where most people can hardly wrap their heads around the idea of transphobia. It’s refreshing to see a children’s film succinctly dismissing asinine tropes such as names with assigned genders.

Mr. Link is a well-read and well-spoken Sasquatch, but he’s not used to social interaction. The last of his kind, he has written Lionel to help find his cousins the Yetis. Reading and observing humans is one thing but understanding metaphor and figures of speech is another.

For those of you rolling your eyes thinking of Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy, I can assure you it works here. Partly because Link becomes aware of what a metaphor is and tries to grapple with them. Unlike Bautista’s Drax, the humor does not come from his ignorance but from his sweet, innocent bafflement as to why people just don’t say what they mean.

Lionel, in order to become a member of the “great men,” strikes a deal with Piggot. Show proof of Bigfoot and they’ll let him in. Of course, Piggot cannot stand Lionel. “Dark times,” Piggot mutters to his valet Mr. Collick (Matt Lucas). “Electricity. Suffrage. Evolution!”

Lord Piggot is clearly the conservative resistance to change. But quite honestly, the fact that Missing Link names the things the people who wish to maintain the status quo are against puts it ahead of the pack. It all but spells out that what Lord Piggot is afraid of isn’t change per se, but that other people might be as well respected as him. Progress is coming and he’ll have to pay for it. Not to mention the fact that evolution is mentioned at all is a rarity.

Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana) is the wife of Lionel’s best friend and deceased partner. It is heavily implied she is also the ex-lover of Lionel. She knows Lionel enough to see through him instantly. Lionel is, of course, using Link as a way to get in with the other “great men.”

Lionel’s growth is a central part of the story, but it is also parallel to Link’s discovery. Upon arriving at Shangri-La, he discovers the Yetis, led by an Elder voiced by Emma Thompson, don’t want him staying. He’s a country bumpkin and is told he doesn’t belong. Adelina can’t help but laugh that both Lionel and Link both try so hard to belong to a group of people who so clearly don’t want them.

Chris Peterson’s camera painstakingly photographs every detail while designing shots to move fluidly. The camera work adds a layer of viscerality lacking in most animation films. He pulls his camera back for scenic scenes and, even though it’s not real scenery, the production design from Laika is no less exquisite.

It makes you feel in awe of the grandiosity of the globe while also being intimate enough to make you feel as if you are really on the stormy seas. Combined with Laika’s gift for action and motion, you have a truly stunning film. The camera sweeps and cuts in such a way to make the film feel less like a combination of stop motion and computers and more like a genuine film reel.

One action scene in particular takes place on a boat in the middle of a squall. Lionel is being chased by Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), a hired hand of Piggot’s. As the ship is tossed about it lands on its side. Lionel and Stenk continue running on the walls like a scene out of Inception as the camera barrel rolls to give a sense of the undulation of the waves. Simple and common sense though it may be, it is still rare to see in animation of any style.

Underneath all of this is Carter Burwell’s score invisibly holding it all together. Burwell has the talent for making his score indiscernible while the movie is playing, but somehow noticeable when heard outside the movie. His score for Missing Link likewise adds the feel of an old school epic adventure film while never being overbearing or overshadowing what is happening on screen. It hums underneath every frame, allowing for mood and atmosphere to bubble up with every crescendo.

Butler directed ParaNorman, a movie I also quite liked. With Missing Link, he has shown a deft ability to weave a story while exploring and skewing ancient genre tropes and writing cliches. Through it all, he has shown us that warmth and sensitivity can still exist outside major studio films for children. Better yet, he’s shown it’s possible for adults as well.

Image courtesy of United Artists Releasing

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