Missing Link ★★★½

Missing Link is the fifth film out of Studio Laika, that relatively new stop motion company that broke through with 2009's Coraline. The release of Missing Link seemed to be approached with a certain amount of hesitation, as if the studio was losing its edge after a string of masterpieces - I suspect many have simply forgotten about The Boxtrolls at this point.

What I gather from this hesitation is more a concern over a change in style - their two great works, Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, carry an effectively heavy edge. They belong to a dark group of animation we haven't seen that often out of American studios; Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks tend to play it safe with the bright and cheery, and any studio that did stray into bleaker subject matters seemed to have died off decades ago. To see Laika put out a film that looks more akin to those major studio productions suggests we could be losing a unique voice.

In the end, however, Missing Link feels distinctly within their style. It may shed the surface darkness, but that's because it's simply replacing the gothic horror or spirit-based quest with a more classically European style of adventure - the stakes are as high as the others, the setting has simply changed.

Missing Link generally handles its themes well - Sir Lionel Frost hopelessly seeks the approval of a group of powerful men by attempting to find proof of mythical creatures. This leads him to meet Mr. Link, a Sasquatch that wants to seek out others like him. Lionel agrees to the trip largely for his own image; these two singularly unique individuals are both on a desperate quest for validation.

While the style is fine, what Missing Link really lacks is a proper screenplay. There's nothing that particularly stood out as wrong, but it leaves little impact. The jokes are fun in their moment but quickly pass. In reflection, I don't feel like Coraline or Kubo had that strong of writing either, but their unique style granted an extra sense of gravitas to every sequence. Missing Link holds back on the fantastical to its detriment, as it reveals itself to be a bit too straightforward.

Despite this lightness, the individual moments do shine through. This film is consistently fun from the opening at Loch Ness to the climactic moments in the Himalayas. The characters are all charming, suited with a unique sense of motion and visual communication. Certain moments are surprisingly tense - the entire closing sequence had me on the edge of my seat, while also being pointedly hilarious. Missing Link digs its claws into colonialism and elitism throughout, and it really builds into a fantastic ending. There's something to be said about a movie that manages to keep building interest even within a simple structure.

As expected with Laika, Missing Link is a wonderful film to look at. While its style isn't their best, the smoothness of the animation is breathtaking. Where the character design is a bit basic, the set design is wonderful - each sequence has a unique location, which really helps build the sense of this being an epic adventure despite its short running time.

Missing Link offers little beyond its pleasantness, but it does so without hitting any notable sour notes. While I'd love to have another Kubo, I'm still happy with what we got. I walked out happy with the experience, fleeting as it will likely be.