By Chance Solem-Pfeifer | Willamette Week
Published April 10
In terms of scope, Missing Link is the most ambitious film in Laika Studios' 14-year history. Opening this week, the latest feature from the Hillsboro stop-motion animation outfit stretches across the world with majestic "wide shots" worthy of John Ford or David Lean. And it's a period piece, to boot. Victorian explorer Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman) and his newly discovered Sasquatch companion Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis) traverse Cascadia rainforests, the Great American Desert, spitting seas and, eventually, the Himalayas in search of Link's abominable cousins.
Despite the film's impressive sweep, a Laika animator like Rachelle Lambden is more likely to think and talk one frame, one faint motion of puppetry, one flicker of light at a time. God is in the details, and where stop-motion is concerned, a fix-it-in-post attitude is flatly impossible.
"People are so in tune with subtleties of body language and facial expressions that it's not something you can cheat," says Lambden of honing the characters for Missing Link. "Take the easy way out [and you] risk losing the audience."
To keep those viewers captivated, director Chris Butler and his dozens of animators and artists captured silicone urethane puppets 24 times per second at their state-of-the-art studio, where analog obsessiveness meets the razor's edge of technology you'd imagine is available at a company that's owned by Phil Knight and currently 4 for 4 in Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature.
If there's a technical throughline in the studio's quintet of official releases—Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014), Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) and now Missing Link—it's a quality they term "the Laika drift." Lambden describes it as one part aesthetic North Star and one part scientific mimicry. If living matter is never truly at rest, the studio's creations should never appear truly still.
When Lambden began working for Laika on ParaNorman, they tried capturing "the drift" by affixing foam to puppets' feet. Seven years on, the latest novelty is a set of mechanized "breathers" to generate faux-physiological motion in the characters.
Paying attention to that level of detail could result in an animator working on one scene for an entire year. Lambden had that experience with a few critical minutes of Missing Link. While leaning over the railing of an ocean liner, Lionel and Mr. Link have a transformative chat. We watch the smarm gradually fall off the adventurer's face as the film teases out the unlikely emotional reality of its burnt-orange Bigfoot. Mr. Link, we find out, would prefer a name that doesn't owe itself to Lionel's colonial sense of science.
Then there's the spectacle of it all, and Missing Link is an involving achievement in this sense, too. It's enough to instill disbelief-shattering fright that, for instance, the heroes of a children's movie might plummet to their deaths. Some of the writing, by contrast, creates an unfortunate and opposite effect. The repeated literal interpretation of the world, Amelia Bedelia-style, that runs through Link's mind (via Galifianakis' modern-American parlance) clashing with Jackman's constant euphemisms sometimes dents the period fantasy.
Yet the presence of a coherent and original reality in the first place is an overriding victory. After all, Missing Link arrives in an animation landscape where Disney dominates the game with one uncanny anthropomorphic remake after another, films that too often feel glossy and facile in their souped-up nostalgia.
Conversely, stop-motion will always be blessed with a certain ability to show its work. Legendary animator Henry Selick once opined that the style's enduring appeal is a paradox for its artists: "It can never be perfect." And true enough, every time Lambden (who fittingly comes from a background in live theater direction) describes the inherent limitations of her job, it doubles as a statement of purpose.
"Every decision you make is going to be in the film," she says. "This is your time frame. This is your puppet. And it will not do everything you need it to do. Sometimes you just have to jump in and see what happens."