By Jim Slotek
I will see anything that comes out of the Portland-based stop-motion animation house Laika, and know, at the very least, it won’t be same-old-same old.
Missing Link, in which a self-important 19th Century adventurer hunts down a surprisingly articulate Sasquatch and ends up squiring him to a meeting with his Yeti cousins in the Himalayas – has the feel of a light-hearted old movie telling an even older story as a series of antic episodes.
And where the story in animation is often about the realism of the hair – or in Laika’s case, how 3D printing has allowed the animators to create thousands of expressions in their solid-object characters – Missing Link is a display of how fluid stop-motion physicality has become, with its scenes of slapstick and physical comedy in bar brawls, gunfights, etc.
The fact that I could encapsulate most of the entire plot in a sentence conveys just how slight a story Missing Link is. But the movie, which writer-director Chris Butler envisioned as Around the World in 80 Days as acted by the likes of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, does harken back to the days when action was the stuff you squeezed between bits of plot and dialogue, and not the whole movie.
Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman , fresh off an enjoyably action-filled encounter with the Loch Ness monster, faces his usual ridicule at the gentlemen adventurers club as he announces his intention to discover the missing link between ape and human in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Their president, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry ) turns out to actually be intent on thwarting his mission, convinced that proof of ascendance from apes would damage the British Empire’s superiority complex (in an example of the movie’s wit, he pompously describes the Empire’s mission as “bringing good table manners” to the rest of the world).
So it’s no surprise that there’s a hired gun (Timothy Olyphant) waiting for Sir Lionel at the other side of the continent on the other side of the Atlantic. Their chase will obvious become global.
There’s also his quarry, a kind-hearted, soft-spoken and somewhat neurotic giant primate (Zach Galifianakis) who’s learned English by listening and reading discarded books and periodicals. So he’s still a little literal. “I give you my word,” Sir Lionel says to his new eight-foot friend. “What word is that?” the newly-named Mr. Link asks, in what becomes a brief back-and-forth Who’s on First exchange.
The whole movie is kind of like that. We know where they’re going (the two are joined by the feisty Adelina Fortnight, voiced by Zoe Saldana who possesses the map they need), they will be followed, there will by physical comedy inherent in passing off a 600 pound hominid as a passenger on a steam locomotive, there will be Nepalese jokes at the travelers’ expense, and there will be Yetis.
So, not the most profound movie in Laika’s catalogue. But Missing Link is an entertaining 90 minutes, with glib dialogue that may skew a little old for younger viewers, but with maybe enough realistic physical comedy and terrific stop-motion animation to make up for it.
Missing Link. Written and directed by Chris Butler. Starring Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis and Zoe Saldana. Opens wide, Friday, April 12.