Sir Lionel Frost, the ostensible hero of Missing Link, is a perfect match for the medium of stop-motion filmmaking. He’s an explorer who travels to eye-popping locations around the world, makes a habit of finding the strangest-looking creatures possible, and does it all with a clipped sort of fastidiousness straight out of his Victorian era. The opening scene of the film sees Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman) battle the Loch Ness monster with hilarious precision, tackling the gargantuan beast with just a walking stick and a notepad. His attention to detail makes him an ideal fit for a form that brings wiry puppets to life through meticulous craft and technology—in which every turn of a character’s head or tap of his foot takes hours, or even days, to arrange.
Considering the effort that has to go into every shot, Missing Link—the latest feature from the bespoke animation powerhouse Laika (the studio behind hits such as The Boxtrolls and Kubo and the Two Strings)—is impressive to the point of feeling daunting. It’s filled with colorful characters, innovative creature design, and some of the most spectacular sets in Laika’s history. But while the film (directed by Chris Butler, whose last feature was the excellent Laika project ParaNorman) conjures several gorgeous landscapes, Missing Link also stands out as a lovely fable about the limits of Frost’s assiduousness, and the complications caused by his sense of superiority.
After his attempt to get solid photos of the Loch Ness monster goes awry, Frost returns to London at the risk of being branded a fraud. His idols, the stuffy members of an adventurers’ guild who deride him from within their mahogany-bound chambers, challenge him to bring back real proof from his next fantastic mission, so Frost packs his bags for the Pacific Northwest in search of a yeti who has been spotted. As it turns out, that yeti is not only real but also capable of speaking perfect English. Frost quickly identifies him as a “missing link” of sorts between modern Homo sapiens and our primate ancestors and dubs him Mr. Link, though the creature (Zach Galifianakis) prefers the name Susan. Together, they journey to Asia to find a hidden kingdom that the yeti says is populated by more of his kind.
The comic frisson between Frost (a pompous dandy to whom Jackman gives the right amount of outlaw charm) and Susan (an extremely avuncular Galifianakis) is just about enough to power the film for its 95-minute running time. Most of Missing Link is a quest through mysterious lands, which Butler and his production designer, Nelson Lowry, render beautifully. The movie’s action, however, is a little less compelling. Eventually, an old friend of Frost’s with the wonderful name of Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana) joins the group, which adds a little more to the dynamic. Mostly, though, Missing Link coasts on the odd-couple connection between its two protagonists, recalling great buddy road-trip movies like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
The best part of Missing Link is its finale, which I won’t spoil—simply put, the ancient kingdom that Frost and Susan seek out isn’t quite what it seems, though it is something to behold. Laika’s output has become a much better option for animation lovers than the sequel-heavy roster at Pixar. This latest offering is renewed evidence of the studio’s consistency in making artful projects with strong messages. The film won me over with the lessons that Butler (who also wrote the script) tries to impart about the limits of Frost’s perspective, and with the way Frost’s bond with Susan becomes the first genuinely respectful relationship in his life. Animated movies usually follow a romantic or fairy-tale arc, but Missing Link communicates far more with a smaller scope. Amid the noisy, epic action of most kid-oriented features, this film’s story is clear and effective: a sweet-hearted narrative of how friendship can broaden one’s horizons.