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Missing Link

Let’s get something straight here: The missing link is not alive. That’s not how evolution works. Biologists don’t even use the phrase anymore, because it implies that evolution is a linear process (with each species as a link in a chain) as opposed to a branching process (like a family tree).

Any two species on this Earth are descended from a common ancestor, and that common ancestor is, by necessity, dead. We are no more descended from monkeys than you are descended from your sibling. Humans and monkeys are both alive and doing perfectly well, it’s our stone-dead common ancestor we are both descended from.

It’s trouble enough that we have so many millions of people in goddamn 2019 who don’t sufficiently understand evolution and/or actively refuse to accept it. And if we’re really serious about fixing that, we need to stop encouraging these outdated fallacies and incorrect interpretations about what evolution is and how it works.

With all of that said, I was really pissed off with Missing Link from the outset. It didn’t help that the trailers were hot garbage, presenting the tired and outrageous premise with useless voice-over narration and painfully unfunny jokes. And this pained me all the more because it’s Laika, for God’s sake! My hometown heroes who’ve brought so many bold, eye-popping, heartbreaking, terrifying animated movies to the screen with panache and creativity. Could this finally be the movie to break their winning streak?

Not by a long shot, baby!

To start with, the eponymous Mr. Link (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) is never seriously described as a lost step in our evolutionary ladder, but potentially a new primate cousin. Specifically, a Sasquatch. He’s said to be living in the woods of Washington state, and I’m already confused as to which time period this is all supposed to be taking place in. Then again, this is a globe-trotting fantasy starring Bigfoot, so maybe best not to ask too many questions.

Anyway, Mr. Link is the last of his kind in the Pacific Northwest and he’s terribly lonely. What’s more, as the Sasquatch dolefully points out, his world keeps on shrinking while the world of mankind keeps growing. Mr. Link needs a new home and a new family, and legend tells of a yeti colony in the Himalayas that might be willing and able to take him in as evolutionary cousins. Trouble is, he needs help getting there.

Enter Sir Lionel Frost, voiced by Hugh Jackman. The charismatic womanizing heir to billions, Lionel fancies himself a cryptozoologist who travels all around the world looking for rare and unusual animals. It helps that Lionel is introduced riding the goddamn Loch Ness Monster like a rodeo bull, so at least we know he’s more than somewhat competent at what he does.

Still, while Lionel is inscrutable and precise in his work, he’s also kind of a pompous self-centered dick. The man has dreams that he and his outsized ego will be remembered and respected as great explorers, but alas, his efforts at securing any kind of proof are all for naught. And of course it doesn’t help that Lionel is a narcissistic git that nobody likes.

Still, the real problem is that the “explorers’ community” is led by Lord Piggot-Dunceby, voiced by Stephen Fry. Our antagonist is a man every bit as delusional and egocentric as our lead, and a psychopath on top of all that. In his grand introductory speech, we see this character isn’t interested in exploring for the sake of discovering new lands and new kinds of life — he’s out to crush the world under the well-heeled boot of all the rich old white men like him. So naturally, he’s never going to approve of some upstart dandy like Lionel Frost, never mind whatever new ideas he might have like (*shudder*) evolution.

Still, Lionel goes out to track down proof of Sasquatch, and Lord P-D hires a hitman (Willard Stenk, voiced by Timothy Olyphant) to stop Lionel. By killing him. Yes, seriously.

So what we have here is a buddy road comedy starring Lionel Frost and Mr. Link. One of them is alone because he’s the last of his kind, the other is alone because he’s a pompous asshole to everyone around him. Additionally, one is blissfully ignorant of civilization and all its protocols while the other one is of a species that has a nasty habit of destroying natural beauty. Yet the both of them are looking to find their people and their home. You can see how the two of them learn and grow over the course of the film.

But then we have our third main character: Adelina, whose late husband just happened to be a yeti specialist and a former friend of Lionel. And she’s also one of Lionel’s old flames, which makes her the love interest. But because she’s a Zoe Saldana character, she’s not your average female lead. Quite the contrary, she’s a feisty little firecracker who’s so perfectly independent and capable of looking after herself that the character could probably carry her own movie.

All of the characters in this movie are such outsized larger-than-life personalities that it doesn’t take much time or effort to have them figured out. But that doesn’t stop the characters from lecturing each other over and over again, repeatedly spelling out the film’s morals in stone-simple terms. It gets annoying quickly.

Couple that with the predictable plot and the trailers cut together from all the worst jokes in the movie, and it shows an uncharacteristic lack of faith in the audience. At its best, Laika has always been good about challenging its young audience in terms of nuanced morality and genuinely scary content. While this latest work isn’t Barney the Dinosaur by a damn sight, it’s still a step backwards from, say, Kubo and the Two Strings or ParaNorman. I find this disappointing and upsetting.

With all of that said, the movie still has a fantastic sense of humor and a lot of genuinely funny moments. (“The people we don’t want here are leaving! Get them to stay here!”) Additionally, the movie has some fantastic action sequences, in no small part due to the inherently tactile nature of stop-motion animation. In fact, the production quality as a whole is still fantastic. The costume design is made so much more impressive when you stop to recall how tiny all the clothes have to be. And there’s one shot that’s a close-up of running water, except that it can’t actually be running water because there’s a stop-motion foot walking through it and water doesn’t look or move like that except it looks and moves exactly like that and OH MY GOD, WITCHCRAFT!!!

Easily this movie’s greatest strength is its mind-blowing scope. This really is a film that takes us all around the world, from the metropolis of London to the Wild West, from the jungles of India to the highest Himalayan mountaintop. The variety in settings also brings us a variety of action sequences, as every set piece has its own unique flavor.

Then we have the cast. Zach Galifianakis is playing squarely in his wheelhouse, ditto for Zoe Saldana, and Hugh Jackman is having the time of his life hamming it up as a proper British gentleman with his head up his ass. Stephen Fry and Timothy Olyphant are playing to the cheap seats as well, overplaying their villainous roles with aplomb. I don’t dare say much about Emma Thompson — her time here is brief, but it’s a showstopper when she finally comes on.

Missing Link is overly simple at times, with its heavy-handed moralizing and predictable plot, which ranks it as a lesser entry in Laika’s stellar filmography. Even so, this is one time when the journey is more important than the destination. The scope of the film is beyond belief, the production is gleaming with polish, the sense of humor is delightful, and the cast is well-fitted. Most importantly of all, this is an adventure fantasy that’s honestly fun, imparting a marvelous sense of wonder that dovetails perfectly with the environmentalist themes.

This is absolutely one to check out.

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