When it comes to animation, Laika may not be as well-known as Pixar, but their films — including Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings — are always well-made, visually impressive, cleverly amusing, and reliably entertaining.
So when I didn’t hear much buzz about their newest movie, Missing Link, I got worried.
As it turns out, Missing Link has all the fantastic visual design and nimble storytelling that you’d expect from a Laika film, plus more outright humor than all their previous movies combined. It’s an ambitious film, and it’s well worth seeing… but I also found it frustratingly unsatisfying.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on why Missing Link seemed to fall a notch below the other Laika films until I started deconstructing its plot.
That’s when I realized Missing Link is missing a crucial storytelling ingredient.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD for Missing Link, a movie without much plot to spoil.
Missing Link‘s (Brief) Plot
In a nutshell, Missing Link is the story of Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman in top comedy form), a wealthy playboy adventurer who spends his family fortune hunting evidence of the world’s greatest myths and legends. He does this because he wants to be admitted to a private club of adventurers and be taken seriously for his contributions to the field of exploration. But the other old and stuffy adventurers all think he’s a reckless idiot, so they refuse him admission to their members-only club.
When Lionel tries to capture photographic evidence of the Loch Ness Monster, the resulting misadventure nearly kills his assistant, Mister Lint, who promptly quits. Lionel is momentarily depressed and considers giving up on his adventuring dream altogether, until he gets a letter sent by someone in the Pacific Northwest who claims to have evidence of Bigfoot (or, in this film, Sasquatch).
“I think you’re the real deal, and so am I,” the letter says. And this message is all that Lionel — who craves nothing more than validation from others — needs to hear in order to take action.
He announces to the club that he intends to prove Sasquatch exists — and if he can, he wants to finally be admitted to their ranks. The head of the club, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (a delightfully grumbly Stephen Fry), reluctantly agrees… and then hires a thug to kill Lionel, to ensure he can’t possibly complete his mission.
The story’s big twist (or at least it would be if you don’t watch the trailer) comes when Lionel finds the Sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis at his most extreme)… who turns out to have written the letter himself. He wants to be discovered, he explains, because he hopes Lionel will to take him to Shangri-La, the legendary hidden city in the far-off Kunlun Mountains where he believes his distant cousins, the Yetis, may live. That’s because this Sasquatch is the last of his kind, and he doesn’t want to end his days alone.
So he and Lionel make a deal: if Lionel will take him to Shangri-La, he will provide Lionel with all the evidence needed to prove his existence and earn Lionel admission to the members-only adventurers’ club. All they have to do is avoid the evil scoundrel on their trail.
Sounds like a simple enough quest, right?
Well, that’s the problem.
Missing Link‘s Missing Plot Point
Missing Link has all the requisite storytelling elements but one.
It has a who — Lionel, Sasquatch, and their eventual accomplice, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana, clearly having fun) — a what (getting from here to there), a when (the late 1800s), several wheres (many, many, many places), a why (so Sasquatch can find his people and Lionel can find validation), and a how (inventive thievery, fisticuffs, and creative problem-solving on horseback, steamer ship, and mountain village).
The “or else.”
Missing Link is a story with no stakes.
Aside from the recurring threat of the sneering cowboy Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant satirizing his own Justified persona), our heroes aren’t fighting against anything.
Is the Sasquatch in mortal danger if Lionel doesn’t deliver it to Shangri-La? No, not particularly. It actually seems to be living a fairly comfortable life in the forests of Washington state.
Is the Sasquatch in danger during their trip to Shangri-La? Surprisingly, no. Although Lionel insists on dressing him up so he can “blend in” with society, there’s no clearly consistent fear or threat from other humans. The only time they do mob to attack the Sasquatch is when they’re incensed to do so by Stenk; otherwise, they seem either confused by or oblivious to the creature.
Is there a ticking clock deadline by which our heroes must achieve their quest? Also no.
What happens if they fail? Nothing, really. Lionel goes back to finding yet another way to earn entry into the private club, and Sasquatch goes home to live out his days alone. Sad and depressing, maybe, but not so dire that we’re sitting on the edge of our seats worried, either.
Weirdly, the opposites are also true.
What happens if Lionel succeeds? Um… also nothing, really. He gets admitted to a group that would rather not have him, which is… not really an outcome we feel like cheering for either?
And the strangest part is that neither outcome would actually have an effect on Lionel’s personality. Whether he’s in the club or not, he’d still want to go adventuring, because that’s what he enjoys, and it’s not like losing his bet would deny him that opportunity.
Even the climax is anticlimactic. Without spoiling the details, there’s a moment where Lionel points out that the villain’s actions don’t make sense, and the villain admits that it really all comes down to ego.
In other words: the characters in Missing Link are all basically doing this because they feel like it. Which is an interesting alternative to the “do or die, must save the world” pressure in most action films. But the absence of a clearly negative and detrimental outcome for the heroes robs the story of the stakes it needs to feel truly propulsive, satisfying, and effective.
Perhaps most frustrating of all is that the seeds of a deeper conflict are planted in the story, but they never seem to sprout.
Missing Link‘s Missed Opportunity
The film’s underlying theme is about acceptance, both of others and of one’s self as-is without relying on external validation from others. This is a great theme for a kids’ movie, but its execution is muddled on two fronts.
First, there’s the disconnect between theme and character.
Lionel is a loner. So is Sasquatch. And so, by virtue of circumstance, is Adelina.
The film creates numerous opportunities for the trio to work together and invest in each other’s well-being, which ultimately pays off functionally, but not emotionally.
That’s because the theme is also disconnected from the plot.
Lord Piggot-Dunceby is a neanderthal in a suitcoat. In one of the film’s best visual metaphors, his rage literally sucks the light from the room as he rants about what will happen if Lionel wins their bet: people’s minds will open, they’ll become more accepting, and other cultures won’t be seen as “lesser” anymore. “It’ll be as bad as suffrage,” he complains. “There’ll be no place left for men like me.”
Yet the film turns this notion on its head by pointing out that every culture is exclusionary toward someone, which makes the idea of progress a mostly relative concept. Again, that’s an unusual twist moral for a kids’ movie, but also not entirely satisfying.
So, what are we left with?
We’re left with Lionel’s character arc. He’s the only character who changes in this movie, because he’s the only character with something to learn — which is, how to care about the well-being of others.
The problem is that this flaw in Lionel’s personality isn’t established as the reason why he isn’t succeeding in life. On the contrary, we see newspaper headlines about his exploits, we see evidence of his good fortune, we see proof of his quick-thinking and derring-do, and we see him striving to be admitted to a group of other self-obsessed men. (If anything, that’s our only clue that Lionel is aimed in the wrong direction.)
We also see Lionel alone, which is a tool the fillmmakers don’t use enough.
In perhaps the best wordless storytelling in the movie, Lionel boards a steamer bound for America. As the other passengers crowd the rail to wave goodbye to their families on the docks, Lionel is alone in his room, unpacking his suitcase. The film wants us to hope Lionel connects with others, but it works against its own premise by making him so charismatic that we doubt he’d have trouble connecting with anyone if he chose to.
Thus, Lionel’s “lesson” isn’t overcoming a flaw that’s preventing him from being fulfilled.
If Lionel had failed to get his photo of Nessie because he hadn’t trusted Mister Lint…
Or if Lionel had failed in his mission to get the Shangri-La map because he had offended Adelina…
Or if Lionel had been abandoned by Sasquatch for treating him poorly on their journey…
Or if Lionel had succeeded and still been denied entry to the private club because they simply couldn’t tolerate his self-serving ego…
THEN we would have a reason for Lionel to want to change his ways.
But as it is, what little change Lionel does undergo only serves the plot, not the payoff.
When Lionel finally decides to choose to consider Sasquatch as a partner, everything in his life should change. Instead, nothing really does… except he now has a partner to do all the same adventuring he would have been doing merrily on his own anyway.
Is he happier? Not necessarily.
Is he more effective and accomplished? Doesn’t seem to be.
Is Sasquatch fully integrated into society as a result of Lionel’s efforts? Nope, he’s still dressed in the same tiny disguise he wears all movie long.
In the end, Missing Link more or less completes a full circle. It’s a beautiful-looking journey, but it doesn’t quite lead anywhere.
And that absence of “or else” or meaningful change is why you’re probably not hearing as much buzz about it as its visual excellence deserves.