Animated films have a bit of an extra struggle: They’re largely marketed toward children and must connect to that audience in look, feel, theme and script, while still also appealing to the actual ticket buyers — the parents or guardians who look for great animation, a unique and entertaining story, and something to keep them engaged as well.
Laika has had success in reaching both younger and older audiences with its previous films “Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” “The Boxtrolls” and “Kubo and the Two Strings,” but their latest, “Missing Link” — while just as beautiful in animation style as its predecessors — seems saddled with an overwhelmingly monotonous story and lifeless humor, with little entertainment for either generation.
Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman) is a gentleman and adventurer who loves to pursue the mysterious, like the Loch Ness Monster. After being laughed at by other explorers, Frost receives a strange letter which sends him to the Pacific Northwest in search of the legendary “missing link” that connects man to its previous ancestry. What he finds is Susan (Zach Galifianakis), a lonely, silly, intelligent creature who might very well be the last of his kind. Susan asks Frost to help him find any distant relatives he might have in the distant, mystical valley of Shangri-La, so that he too might have a sense of who he is and where he belongs. Frost agrees, but first he must attain the only map to contain the location of Shangri-La from Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), who joins the duo on their journey to find Susan’s long-lost relatives.
Writer-director Chris Butler (“ParaNorman”) excels in his decision to direct the story with gorgeous, bright, bold colors but seems to flounder in telling his story in a way that resonates for children and adults. His script seems aimed at elementary school-aged children, with light-hearted and easy humor, but it fails to hold interest beyond a few scenes.
As a parent, my problem with this kind of writing style is that it sacrifices story and entertainment by forgetting that children, especially modern children, are intelligent enough to grasp more complete narratives; they can sit through a film that is witty enough to amuse adults just as much as it does kids. It’s a unique balance, granted, but it wasn’t met here.
Like the other stop-motion features from Laika, where “Missing Link” hits a home run is in its exquisite craft. Cinematographer Chris Peterson (“ParaNorman”) creates gorgeous landscapes that span mountains and oceans, with each frame full of color and life, underscoring the theme of exploration. (Special praise is due for the animators who crafted the water that appears in scenes, so lifelike that I was convinced I could reach out and get my hands wet.)
The costume designs by Deborah Cook (“Coraline”) were a particular highlight; there’s a real tangibility to Frost’s tweed suit, with its slight roughness but elegant jacket lines. Production designer Nelson Lowry (“Kubo and the Two Strings”) captures the Victorian era with stylized backgrounds that also complement the costumes.
The performances might have benefited from some collaboration between the voice actors, particularly Jackman and Galifianakis, who don’t feel as connected as two adventuring partners should. I did, however, appreciate that Saldana lent her character the gift of being bilingual: Spanish is the second-most-spoken language in the United States, and many families will appreciate hearing the language they speak at home spoken by a character in a stop-motion film. Ultimately, none of these talented actors rise above the dull script.
“Missing Link” is all too aptly titled — there’s a connection that’s just not there.