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Early Man of the World

Hugh Jackman
Hugh Jackman
Annapurna Pictures
 94 Minutes
Rated: PG
Directed by: Chris Butler
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis    
Missing Link

Although traditional, hand-drawn animation is all but dead today, especially in the world of feature films, a few studios still crank out products using the similar, even more time-consuming method of stop-motion animation. And, perhaps because the time and effort required to produce stop-motion animation are considerable, those few studios that still make that effort seem to take extra care in crafting appealing, well-written screenplays. That’s certainly the case with Missing Link, the latest creation of Laika Studios and one of the funniest films of the year, live action or animated.


Laika Studios is the successor to Will Vinton’s studio and has ably carried on the tradition of its founder, the man who created the California Raisins. The studio isn’t the most prolific in the world, with only five films produced (one on a contract basis) over a decade. However, every one of them has been nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, a streak that Missing Link is sure to continue.


Although Laika is an American studio, the sensibilities and sense of humor in Missing Link are quite British. The hero, so to speak, of the story is Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman), an intrepid explorer of the late 19th century, whose neverending quest is to prove the existence of some heretofore undiscovered creatures. Frost’s goal is to be admitted to the exclusive Optimates Club, a society of great explorers. The film begins with an exciting prologue, in which Frost and his assistant, Mr. Lint (David Walliams) find the Loch Ness monster, only to have Nessie destroy their rowboat and camera containing the pictorial proof.


Not surprisingly, Lint quits Frost’s employ after nearly becoming Nessie food, but Frost perseveres when he receives a mysterious letter from the United States. The author of the message invites Frost to meet him in a remote corner of the Pacific Northwest, where he will provide the explorer with proof of Sasquatch’s existence. Frost convinces the Optimates Club to grant him membership if he provides the evidence, much to the chagrin of the Club’s snobbish president, Lord Piggott-Dunceby (Stephen Fry). To make sure that Frost doesn’t succeed in his quest, Piggott-Dunceby hires a bounty hunter, Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), to kill Frost.


Frost does travel to the rugged American backcountry, where he learns that his penpal is indeed, the Missing Link (Zach Galifianakis), a very large but sweet apelike creature, who has taught himself to read and write. Mr. Link (or Susan as he later calls himself) agrees to give Frost the proof needed to satisfy the Optimates Club of Bigfoot’s existence if Frost helps him meet what he thinks are his own kind, the Himalayan Yeti. Frost agrees, and the two set off for the Himalayas. Along the way, they have to dodge Stenk and his henchmen, and they acquire a third person for the expedition, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), the widow of the explorer who found the lost city of the Yeti initially. Since Adelina has her late husband’s map, she is able to force Frost to allow her on the expedition.


While stop-motion animation films have their charms, thrilling action sequences usually aren’t among them, owing to the difficulty of continually moving around the miniatures of the various characters. Missing Link proves a wonderful exception to the rule. The film boasts four major set pieces, beginning with the Loch Ness prologue, and including an old-fashioned Western barroom brawl in which Mr. Link manages to throw his considerable weight around and a long fight and chase aboard the steamship taking Frost, Adelina, and Mr. Link across the Atlantic.


However, the film’s climactic set piece is one of the best animated sequences I’ve seen, a variation on the classic rope bridge finale of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Here, it’s an ice bridge along the route to the city of the Yeti where the three adventurers precipitously dangle over the edge and at times clutch at icicles while being menaced by Stenk and Piggott-Dunceby. The action in this scene frequently violates every single law of physics, but it’s remarkably well choreographed. These action sequences may outshine some of the production detail in the movie, but, thanks to stop-motion, the audience can see the detail with which the characters are rendered, especially Mr. Link, whose hair is meticulously crafted, adding to his sweet, cuddly appearance (despite his decidedly un-cuddly size). Viewers interested in filmmaking technique should stay through the closing credits, where the filmmakers illustrate how they created one of the many intricately detailed sequences in the movie.


Missing Link is more than technical wizardry, however. The voice acting is excellent, with Galifianakis, Jackman, Fry, and Olyphant perfectly cast (or their animated characters perfectly created, depending on how you want to look at it). Also, the script by director Chris Butler is filled with understated, dry British humor. Frost and Mr. Link are a perfect comic pair, with the Sasquatch having an unfortunate tendency to take everything literally, which runs afoul of Frost’s frequent snide, sarcastic remarks. I probably laughed more at Butler’s scripted jokes in Missing Link than I have at the jokes in any other film this year.


Of course, as an animated film with a massive but cuddly “star” who seems a natural for a line of children’s plush toys, Missing Link is a family film, and the filmmakers feel obligated to sell the film’s message. In this case, it’s not Mr. Link who must learn the major life lesson, but Lionel Frost. He finally realizes that his obsession with being accepted into the Optimates Club hasn’t brought him happiness. That’s a good lesson for youngsters to learn, but the way it’s presented, the movie’s messaging will probably go over many children’s heads. Nor will it resonate all that well with adults, either, who won’t buy into the film’s attempts at emotion. This is precisely the type of emotional scenario at which Disney and Pixar routinely excel in their animated films, but Chris Butler and Laika aren’t quite there.


Still, while Missing Link doesn’t appeal to the emotions of young or old the way Disney films often do, it definitely appeals to the eye and the funny bone. It’s a movie that doesn’t just elicit a chuckle or two for an adult in-reference in otherwise juvenile dialogue. Instead, the film is full of quite funny jokes delivered primarily by Hugh Jackman and Zach Galifianakis. Missing Link is also a visual delight, with dozens of individual sets, each with its own personality. All in all, this movie is a direct link to an entertaining evening at the movies for young and old alike.    

In this clip, Zach Galifianakis tries to save Zoe Saldana.

Read other reviews of Missing Link: 

Missing Link (2019) on IMDb