Monday, February 17, 2020

"Missing Link": review

"Missing Link" tells the story of an egocentric, glory-seeking English adventurer and a lonely American Sasquatch who wants to travel to Asia to be with yetis, whom he sees as his own kind. Released in 2019, written and directed by Chris Butler, and starring the voice talents of Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoë Saldana, Timothy Olyphant, and Stephen Fry, "Missing Link" is deeper and more mature than it might appear at first glance. In fact, like many Laika animation productions ("Coraline," "ParaNorman," "Kubo and the Two Strings"), the movie weaves quite a few profound, adult themes into the story it wants to tell, to the point that, when you think about the movie's title after you've been through the story, you start to realize that the title may have multiple meanings.

Sir Lionel Frost (Jackman) is a late-1800s adventurer who seeks after cryptids—mysterious creatures like the Loch Ness Monster. He tends to be so focused on his own potential fame and fortune, though, that he rarely pays attention to the people around him, such as his assistant Lemuel Lint (David Walliams), who quits in anger after Lint and Frost have a nasty encounter with Nessie at the beginning of the story. Frost's fondest wish is to be inducted into The Society of Great Men, currently presided over by the ultraconservative Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Fry), who (it is implied) is a creationist who looks down upon Frost for Frost's view that humans are part of an evolutionary continuum.

For all his efforts, Frost consistently fails to gain entry into the Society because he never quite seems able to provide proof of any of his cryptid encounters. He stumbles upon a letter, however, inviting him to the American Pacific Northwest to meet a bona fide Sasquatch. Frost declares to Piggot-Dunceby that he will return to England with incontrovertible proof of the beast's existence and thus be worthy of entry into the Society while also proving Piggot-Dunceby wrong regarding man's origins. The latter haughtily agrees to this arrangement, then quietly sends an American assassin named Stenk (Olyphant) to chase down and kill Frost.

Frost ends up in the sequoia-filled woods of the Pacific Northwest and meets the Sasquatch (Galifianakis) who, it turns out, was the one who wrote the letter that attracted Frost's attention in the first place. The Sasquatch proves fluent in English, but radically naive and literal about everything. Frost names him Mr. Link (for "missing link," obviously), and Link tells Frost that his greatest wish is to go to the Himalayas to be with a society of yetis: Link is the last of his kind in the Americas, and he is lonely. Link, meanwhile, agrees to provide Frost with things like hair and stool samples to prove his own existence and allow Frost to gain his coveted glory. But although Frost has the know-how to get Link to the Himalayas, the exact location of Shangri-La, where the yeti society is supposedly located, is unknown to him. A now-dead friend and rival, Aldous Fortnight, had discovered Shangri-La and made a map of the route, but Aldous was killed during one of his adventures, and the map is now in the hands of his Latin wife Adelina (Saldana), who also happens to be Lionel Frost's ex-girlfriend. Frost finally obtains the map, but Adelina, strong-willed and feeling trapped in her rich-widow circumstances, demands to accompany Frost and Link on their journey.

The rest of the movie recounts what the trio discover when they finally reach Shangri-La after many adventures, and the story ends with a bit of a twist in which both Frost and Link discover something about themselves, to wit: Frost is at his best when he stops being a self-centered glory-hound, and Link realizes he doesn't need yetis to feel a deep sense of friendship and belonging. Link and Adelina are, in a sense, the "missing links" that help Lionel Frost overcome his egocentric ways to become a better human being. In terms of character arcs, Frost undergoes what are arguably the greatest and deepest personal changes; Link, meanwhile, comes to a simple-but-deep realization; and Adelina Fortnight has almost no arc at all, serving mainly as a sort of tough-love wisdom-figure who helps Lionel find his best self before she attends to her own self-fulfillment.

"Missing Link" is a multilayered film. The plot is peppered with laugh-out-loud moments, some of which are meant more for adults than for kids—including a subtle prison-rape joke that will go well over kids' heads. Being a Laika production, the film features plenty of beautifully realized stop-motion animation that is so smooth as to seem like Pixar-style CGI. (The only aspect of the animation that feels even remotely jittery is the mouth movements of the characters.) The story doesn't shy away from serious themes like subtle and overt imperialism, cultural arrogance, feminism, and even—at one moment—a nod to the "trans" activism that is currently in vogue: Link gives himself the first name of "Susan" to honor the first human who didn't scream and run away in terror when she encountered him in the woods. "Missing Link" is also well-directed enough to include a great deal of tension during a climactic scene in which our three principals all find themselves in grave danger. For what is ostensibly a children's movie, this is a remarkably profound film with something for everyone.

While I didn't feel "Missing Link" was anywhere near as moving as "Kubo and the Two Strings" (still my all-time favorite Laika film), I did think this was a fun ride, a rollicking adventure that can be enjoyed by young and old alike. The story is well paced, the voice acting is superb, the visuals are unsurprisingly gorgeous, and the story's several morals are good ones for kids to internalize. Highly recommended.

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