Early in January, everyone seemed to agree that Toy Story 4 or Frozen II was going to take home this year's Golden Globe for best animated motion picture. Both of those Disney-backed films were beloved by critics and audiences, and Frozen II had just become the highest-grossing animated film ever.
But when Amy Poehler and Taylor Swift opened the envelope to announce the Golden Globe winner, the title that came out of their mouths wasn't one of Disney's juggernauts. It was Missing Link, a box-office bomb created by the Portland-based (okay, Hillsboro-based) stop-motion animation studio Laika.
Missing Link's producer and director couldn't even be found by the camera; they were seated all the way in the back of the theater. It felt like it took them three minutes to reach the stage.
"Well, I'm flabbergasted," panted Missing Link's writer and director Chris Butler by the time he reached the podium. Butler had also written and directed Laika's 2012 animated hit ParaNorman—but unlike ParaNorman, which made a worldwide total of $107 million on a $60 million budget, Missing Link was a financial disaster. It barely recovered a quarter of its $100 million budget at the box office. (For the record, it cost $100 million to create Cats, which, at the time of this writing, has grossed an estimated $62 million worldwide. So yes, Missing Link flopped harder than Cats.)
Why was Missing Link such a box-office loser? And how did this loser end up beating the biggest animated movie of all time at the Golden Globes?
The answers to both of those questions have to do with the movie's plot.
The film follows an English explorer named Sir Lionel Frost, voiced by an uppity Hugh Jackman, who is hired by a strange Pacific Northwesterner named Mr. Link, voiced by Zach Galifianakis, to find a yeti. But Mr. Link, it turns out, is catfishing Sir Frost. Mr. Link is actually a Sasquatch, and he asks to be called "Susan."
Missing Link's trailer promoted the Galifianakis-voiced Sasquatch wanting to be named "Susan" as a joke—"Ha-ha, Sasquatches don't understand gender, Susan is a girl's name"—but I read Susan as queer. Susan is fully aware that Susan is a girl's name and he also wants to go by he/him pronouns. Navigating the gender of an animated Sasquatch is, uh, hairy.
Susan calls for Sir Frost because he needs help finding his long-lost relative, the yeti. This leads the pair to the Himalayas. On the way, they are joined by another explorer, Adelina Fortnight (voiced by Zoe Saldana). Fortnight and Sir Frost have a complicated romantic past, and this relationship is the bane of the whole movie. It's boring and shallow, and presumably one of the main reasons for the movie's commercial failure. As a viewer, I kept wanting to get back to the genderqueer Sasquatch, who is a star.
Galifianakis's portrayal of Susan is consistently surprising and tender. Whether intentional or not, the film ends up telling a queer story through Susan, and in a way that's understandable and appropriate for its younger audiences The themes are not overt, but they are there. Susan brought home that Golden Globe.
Missing Link still might not win the Oscar (the ceremony is Sunday, February 9). Toy Story 4 remains the leading contender. But if Laika does end up winning that big award, they'll have Susan to thank.