The marketing for the stop-motion animation Missing Link showcases its title character, a Sasquatch who sports close-set eyes, gaping nostrils (they could trigger trypophobia) and a toothy, disarming grin. Frankly, the image is off-putting to the point where it's no surprise that Missing Link didn't bring families flocking to theaters this weekend. People should think twice about missing the movie, though. While the latest from Laika (Coraline, The Boxtrolls) isn't the studio's best, it still offers a pleasantly eccentric good time.
Written and directed by Chris Butler, the guy behind Laika's ParaNorman, Missing Link starts as a satirical riff on square-jawed imperialist-adventurers. In the Victorian era, Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman) is an intrepid monster hunter, a sort of Fox Mulder avant la lettre who yearns for respect from his more staid explorer peers. When he gets a lead on a bigfoot in the wilds of Washington State, he jumps at the chance to impress the insufferable Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), who boasts of having "brought good British table manners to savages the world over."
Turns out, though, that bagging the bigfoot is no simple matter. The creature (Zach Galifianakis), whom Sir Lionel dubs "Mr. Link," is articulate, literate and lonely. It was he who tipped off Lionel to his own whereabouts, hoping to enlist the explorer to help him find his distant relatives. Soon the two set off in search of the fabled yeti of the Himalayas, pursued by Piggot-Dunceby's evil minions.
In most animated flicks, Mr. Link would serve as a stand-in for the children in the audience — essentially a bumbling, overgrown kid. Galifianakis brings the bigfoot a different quality: silly, yes, but also self-deprecating, a little melancholy, a little gender-fluid (Mr. Link's chosen first name is "Susan," to Lionel's dismay) and thoroughly 2019.
Watching Lionel, who's all sharp points and clipped vowels, interact with this big, hairy, rounded goofball is like watching Victorian masculinity confront the millennial version. Surprise: They bond. First, though, they need the help of Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), who shows up mainly to give Lionel lessons in emotional intelligence and appreciating his offbeat pal. (Though the screenplay eventually makes the point that the female lead should have her own journey, Adelina's journey stays off-screen.)
To the extent that Missing Link is really, stealthily, about generational insecurities, it should appeal to the same adult viewers who loved Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox. While not as stunning as that film, this one offers a beautifully realized world, from Lionel's bric-a-brac-crammed study to misty, jewel-toned forests and mountains to deck chairs that catch the air like sails.
For adults, Missing Link is a Tintin comic brought to life and infused with modern ambivalence about all those old romantic notions of exploration and discovery. For kids ... well, they may enjoy the slapstick and verbal humor, and older ones could appreciate the tropes the movie riffs on. But it's anyone's guess how they'll respond to Mr. Link, who really is pretty off-putting in both his appearance and his contemporaneity.
When the bigfoot is threatened by bad guys who want to skin and mount him, Galifianakis exclaims, "No, thank you!" with all the verve of someone blocking a troll on Twitter. It's a funny performance in part because he barely bothers to goose up his affect to match the stylized animated world, and Missing Link is a reminder that it would be nice to see (and hear) more of him. But it's the bigfoot's loneliness that lingers as the credits roll.