Although it breaks new ground visually, elements of the tale don’t always meld with grace. The film is a rich-looking blend of stop-motion animation, enhanced with computer-generated effects and 3-D printing techniques (keep an eye on the characters’ smooth yet expressive faces). Yet these are all at the service of a perhaps over-intellectualized, emotionally wanting plot, humor that doesn’t always land, and a too-frequent and too-dark undercurrent of threatened violence.
In September, audiences saw the more conventionally computer-animated “Smallfoot,” a buddy comedy about a Himalayan yeti and a publicity-hungry TV host. That film was pure fun, turning folklore on its head, with humans as mythical creatures in the yetis’ imaginations. “Missing Link” tells a more complex tale, set in the Victorian era and realized in the more artisanal look of stop-motion. It comes from the storytellers at Laika Entertainment, the Portland, Ore., studio that made the uniformly excellent “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “The Boxtrolls” and “Coraline.”
Chris Butler wrote and directed “Missing Link” and also designed the characters. His first film as writer/co-director was Laika’s “ParaNorman,” about a boy who felt like an outcast and saw ghosts. Here he creates two more outcasts – an explorer whose views aren’t accepted by the adventurers’ club he longs to join, and a lonely, last-of-his-breed sasquatch who wants to leave the Pacific Northwest and join his cousins in the Himalayas.
The question is whether Butler’s fable, which echoes such films as “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” weaves its wit, intellect and emotions in a fully engaging way. The answer is only sometimes, though always with impressive skill. Yet too often, the story loses its emotional energy, stalling among the intricacies of fight scenes or Himalayan vistas. Only Zach Galifianakis, voicing the sasquatch character Mr. Link, keeps his naive heart firmly on his, er, fur, at all times. Other characters seem to explain the plot rather than live it.
In a ravishing prologue, Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), a smug yet dashing British explorer, sips tea in a canoe as the Loch Ness monster looms above and then gives him and his manservant a really wild ride. But the fusty old men in London’s Optimates Club don’t believe Sir Lionel’s tales of Nessies or sasquatches or yetis. Nor do they accept evolution. He vows to prove them all wrong, especially Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), the dean of the group.
A letter arrives suggesting Sir Lionel might find the last surviving sasquatch/Bigfoot in Washington state. The two meet cute in the piney woods, where Sir Lionel is shocked that Mr. Link, as he dubs him, reads and speaks English. Mr. Link, who would really rather be called “Susan,” after a lady prospector who once smiled at him, begs the explorer to take him to the Himalayas, where he can join his probable cousins, the yeti. “I’m lonely,” he says.
Moved by a mix of empathy and ambition, Sir Lionel agrees. This takes the pair on a journey, first to see Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), the strong-minded widow of a rival explorer; she has a map they need. She joins them as they travel back to London on a voyage that features a terrific-looking storm and a violent confrontation with a hit man (Timothy Olyphant) sent by Lord Piggot-Dunceby. Still stalked by the hit man, the trio then cross Europe by train, India by elephant and the Himalayas on foot, where they get directions to the yeti hideaway from an ancient Tibetan woman with a googly-eyed chicken on her head.
“Missing Link” does not lay an egg by any means. It is visually stunning, with well-realized characters and humor that really does work. Yet somehow, ambitious as it is, the film doesn’t sail easily enough between the yak-poo jokes and its more serious themes of loneliness and otherness. “Missing Link” is impressive, but it’s still missing something.