‘Missing Link’ Review: Lovely Animation, but Lacking Inspiration
It’s fitting that “Missing Link,” which concerns a lovable creature a step behind on the evolutionary ladder, has been made with stop-motion animation, the painstaking process by which models and puppets are photographed to create the illusion of movement. In form and content, it’s a movie about fighting obsolescence. The perfection of the computer animation would simply be wrong.
All hail Laika, then, for making a movie in which it’s a pleasure to ponder the sharpened contours of a pointy schnoz or the tufts of an animal’s fur, which, in the case of Mr. Link (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), as the gentle simian man comes to be known, resembles hair-colored plumage. The imagery is not nearly as eccentric or demented as that in Laika’s “Coraline,” probably the studio’s high-water mark. But even so, the sculpting gives the characters a tactility that lines of coding have not yet matched, and the jerkiness of the movement — only slight in this case — affords the film a warm, organic feel.
The evident care put into the film’s design has not, alas, been matched with similar inventiveness in storytelling. Directed by Chris Butler (“ParaNorman,” with Sam Fell), “Missing Link” is a throwback in more ways than one, with a plot that tips its hat to Victorian literature, frontier town westerns and a 1930s creation, Shangri-La. Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman) is a quixotic adventurer who longs for acceptance from a stuffy British geographical society. In the opening sequence, he and a put-upon assistant try to capture evidence of the Loch Ness monster. Frost makes the mistake of relying on one of those newfangled photographic cameras.
Never mind, though, for a letter soon summons him on a new expedition to Washington State, where he encounters the talking Mr. Link, who wants to track down his surviving relatives. There are funny running jokes involving the eight-foot Mr. Link’s proportions — a poor fit for a barstool, a train and a plaid suit — and his habit of taking all of Frost’s pronouncements literally. Over the course of their travels they team up with Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), the brassy widow of one of Frost’s colleagues, and are pursued by an assassin (Timothy Olyphant), hired to kill Frost by his rival (Stephen Fry).
The setup is satisfactory. The payoff is somewhat less so, especially once the film begins dealing in platitudes about friendship and the action moves to the Himalayas. The icy land of lost yetis proves, visually, a lot less exciting than the more intricately art-directed details of human civilization. (Emma Thompson, as the queen of that hidden enclave, gets in a few biting lines.)
What’s missing from the movie, for all its technical skill, is simply inspiration — that extra touch of wit or imagination that might elevate it from a pleasant diversion to a rare sighting.