Let’s get this out of the way: Missing Link, the latest from Oregon-based stop-motion studio Laika, is astonishingly beautiful. From the secluded, green glens of Pacific Northwest timberland to the jaunty, slate-topped roofs of Victorian London, every scene represents artwork on the highest level from an army of masters in their craft.
To say such visual splendor has become the baseline for Laika’s work should be taken as a compliment, and the fact that I’m about to spend the rest of this review carping about the writing should not diminish from what Missing Link’s artists and animators have accomplished.
The titular missing link here is a lonely bigfoot named Susan (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), who recruits hard-luck cryptozoologist Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) and feisty adventurer Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana) to transport him to what he hopes will be a welcoming tribe of Himalayan yeti.
While that premise is undeniably charming, it’s perplexing that a studio that’s had trouble with cultural representation in the past (“Why is the movie’s main cast so white?” asked BuzzFeed about 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings) would pick a colonialist gadfly to serve as Missing Link’s protagonist.
It doesn’t help that writer/director Chris Butler can’t decide if Sir Lionel is a sensitive scientific visionary or an incompetent, imperialist sex pest. Jackman could be potentially interesting in either role, but the film undercuts his character by assigning him both sets of traits interchangeably.
Meanwhile, Saldana pulls double duty as the requisite Strong Female Protagonist and the Perpetual Voice of Reason. Competent as Adelina is, it seems less than aspirational to be the emotional babysitter for a privileged dilettante who is simultaneity attempting to rob and seduce you. I could be wrong, but that’s the feeling I get.
And it really doesn’t help that Sir Lionel apparently represents the film’s intended audience: Missing Link may be mild compared to some of the tales it draws influence from, like the decidedly un-woke adventure stories of Jules Verne or H. Rider Haggard, but I won’t go to bat for a film that’s making “Boy, isn’t ethnic food weird and gross?” jokes in 2019.
It’s not a good look—and it’s especially unfair to Missing Link’s artists and animators, who have their timeless work saddled with a script that already feels outdated.