Full disclosure, stop-motion animation is my favorite form of animated entertainment.
Yes, “Isle of Dogs” was the best animated film of 2018, I don’t care who they gave the Oscar to (the blurry “Spider-Verse,” how soon we forget). The tactile, hand-made look of plasticine clay, molded and put into “motion” by human hands (with some digital assistance) never fails to delight. Such movies — think “Wallace & Gromit,” “Coraline,” “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” — come to life by way of a grand visual whimsy that no other animation can match.
“Missing Link,” from the studio that gave us the glorious “Kubo and the Two Strings” and writer-director Chris Butler’s “ParaNorman,” has the story,acclaimed and game voice cast and that “grand visual whimsy” going for it. All this comedy, an “Around the World in 80s with Sasquatch” variation, needs is about 25 or 30 more jokes to wholly come off.
It’s cute, but joke-starved.
“Link” is a story-driven kid’s film that holds the attention even as you wish they’d work-shopped more laughs into Butler’s script, spent the money on managing a few more sight gags.
Hugh Jackman voices the intrepid, very proper and very English Sir Lionel Frost, “renowned seeker of mythical beasts.” We meet him as he’s endangering another assistant on the fool’s errand of seeking the Loch Ness Monster.
How does Sir Lionel lure Nessie to the surface? By playing bagpipes underwater, of course!
But Sir Lionel never seems to land conclusive proof for his exploits and discoveries, and is thus always on the outside looking in at London’s stuffy Optimates Club, where starchy Lord Piggot-Dunceb (Stephen Fry) presides.
They’re all about exploring, conquering and colonizing there, “spreading good British table manners to savages the world over.” No place for a tweedy crank like Sir Lionel.
But Frost has received a letter, a suggestion he visit Washington State and meet a Sasquatch, whom he declares is “the Missing Link between man and ape.” And he bets Lord Piggot-Dunceb that this time, he’ll bring proof to prove he “belongs.”
Frost makes the trip and finds the letter-writer, and it turns out to be a fellow nobody is yet calling “BigFoot.” He’s a chatty literalist who speaks and writes English in the voice of Zach Galifianakis. And he’s lonely. Humans are encroaching on his territory so that there are none of his kind left.
“Your world grows bigger and mine is eaten away.”
They reach a bargain, even if there’s a bit of a literal language barrier. Sir Lionel will take the Sasquatch, “Mr. Link” they’ll call him, to the Himalayas where the Yeti (Abominable Snowmen) will welcome him like a long lost cousin.
“I give you my word!”
“Great! What is it?”
First, Frost must smuggle our friend into a lumber town to arrange passage.
“I imagine everyone there has hairy knuckles and poor hygiene. You’ll fit right in!”
Then they must visit the widow of a dead colleague, Adelina (Zoe Saldana) to purloin one of the late explorer’s Yeti maps.
The fact that Lord Piggot-Dunceb has hired an assassin and “rare creature killer,” Stenk (Timothy Olyphant, sporting a perfectly vile drawl) to prevent them from completing their mission means that Adelina has her Marion Ravenswood in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” moment. She’s coming along because she’s too valuable to the quest not to.
The camera lingers over each hand-made creation, from the lumber town saloon to the Himalayan world of the Yeti, soaking up detail but generally slowing down the movie. Comedy — and that’s what this is, story-driven or not — is quick, the more brisk the better. “Missing Link” is not.
We can set the time frame as 1886, as we see the Statue of Liberty being assembled in New York harbor. Shots of a ship at sea, snowy mountains and rustic forests impress. But aside from that opening bagpipe piped underwater bit, there’s not much in the line of sight-gags here.
The best joke among the snowmen and women is the putdown their leader (Emma Thompson) lays on the country cousin, the furry rube who’s just shown up at their snowy door. “Redneck,” is how she describes him.
The paucity of jokes and sight-gags aside, the story and whimsical animation here should keep the kids locked in. The message, about “finding where you fit in,” is not that far removed from Butler’s “ParaNorman,” which gave us the first gay character in animation as part of its “fit in” messaging.
But without the gags to enliven the travelogue, without more funny lines to lighten the load and impart that message, “Missing Link” feels like a missed opportunity. It’s the second animated stab at making comedy out of Big Foot and never much more than second best on the subject.
MPAA Rating: PG for action/peril and some mild rude humor
Cast: The voices of Hugh Jackman, Emma Thompson, Zoe Saldana, Timothy Olyphant, Stephen Fry and Zach Galifianakis
Credits: Written and directed by Chris Butler. An Annapurna release of a Studio Laika film.
Running time: 1:35