By now, all Oregonians should be familiar with the amazing stop-motion animation studio we have right in our backyard: Laika Studios.
We here at Curbside Press certainly talk about them quite a bit, but if you somehow still don’t know what you’re missing out on, here are the basics: Founded in 2005 by former Nike CEO Phil Knight and Oscar-winning animator Will Vinton, Laika makes phenomenal stop-motion films. It’s headquarters are in Hillsboro, right off Highway 26.
With releases that include Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012) and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), Laika has quickly become a powerhouse animation studio. Its first three feature length releases, from 2009-2014, each grossed over $100 million, with budgets of $60 million apiece.
Missing Link, the studio’s latest release this year, doesn’t share in this success. With a budget of $100 million, the film only netted about $26 million in global box office receipts, according to IMDb. That’s a loss of nearly 75 percent!
That isn’t to say that the movie is bad. There’s a ton to like, from a great cast to wonderful social commentary in the screenplay written by Chris Butler, who also directed this film and Laika’s previous effort, Kubo and the Two Strings.
Hugh Jackman voices Sir Lionel Frost, an adventurer and scientist in the year 1886 who strives to be a household name by proving the existence of cryptozoological (it’s a word!) creatures all over the world. Whew, that was a mouthful.
After receiving a mysterious letter, Sir Lionel sets out for Washington to prove the existence of a Sasquach, the “missing link” in the evolution of human beings. The big-footed beast he discovers not only exists, but can read and speak.
“Mr. Link,” as Sir Lionel likes to call him, is voiced by Zach Galifianakis and wants the adventurer to take him to the Himalayas, where his yeti cousins reside in Shangri-La. With deforestation endangering his species and stripping away more and more of his home, he wants to find a new place to be amongst his kind.
Problem is, their journey is being thwarted at every turn by Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), a British noble who doesn’t want Sir Lionel to prove the existence of an evolutionary cousin to humans -- or earn a spot in their stuffy old club for famous British dudes.
Truly, the movie’s villains are stand-ins for certain types of people in our society today. Piggot-Dunceby represents the old guard of society who hold on to outdated beliefs and see progress as threatening to their very existence. Piggot-Dunceby specifically bemoans the changing world, where women march for suffrage and white men don’t get to hoard civil rights from others.
Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), the villain’s hired crony, is an allegory for the American pioneers we see glorified in our history books or as statues on our Capitol Buildings. An American poacher who would rather kill creatures than study them, Stenk travels to the most beautiful places on Earth and can only think of getting paid and the glory of conquest.
While the villains of Missing Link are disdainful of positive change, other characters act as pioneers of a more positive variety. Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana) is a former flame of Sir Lionel’s, but she has more agency in this film than just as a damsel in distress or romantic interest.
She possesses the only map that can take our heroes to Shangri-La and she is also constantly stressing the importance of accepting people’s identities. Adelina, a Hispanic woman, is a reminder to not take anyone for granted.
The animation techniques in Missing Link are just as adept as previous Laika films. Like any good stop-motion picture, it makes you forget that you’re watching stationary clay figures set in a prop world. This movie also does a good job of providing varied sets to explore, thanks to the globetrotting plot of the movie.
So, why was a film with strong values, great voice actors and creative filmmaking techniques such a flop? Well, there a few likely factors.
First and most importantly, Missing Link came out in early April, right around the time that Avengers: Endgame debuted. The biggest movie ever made is some fierce competition for butts in seats, especially for a family-oriented animation film.
That also means that any promotion ahead of the release was likely drowned out by the steam engine that is Marvel Studios. By the time anyone had a chance to go see Missing Link, the crowd of people who even knew about it was pretty small.
Secondly, this Laika project takes far fewer risks than their previous, more successful releases.
The art department, helmed by Laika veteran Robert DeSue, chose a brighter and more colorful look than the studio’s previous work. The character designs share some of the pointy-nosed, exaggerated features that are a staple of Laika’s style, but this aesthetic is decidedly less like its predecessors. It’s by no means bad, but this look winds up being counter-intuitively bland compared to the twisted beauty of films like Coraline and BoxTrolls, which were heralded for their Burton-esque gothic and steampunk style.
Helen O’Hara, writing a review of Coraline for Empire Magazine said, “Terrifying and beautiful, believable and fantastical, this is one of the best children’s films in years and (director Henry) Selick’s finest -- better even than The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
Ironically, Laika got its start doing contract work for Tim Burton movies, including The Corpse Bride (2005). And many of the people who run the art department for Laika even worked with Burton as far back as Disney’s own The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996).
But when competing with the likes of Disney today, successful animated features are often the ones that establish themselves as different. And the progressive themes of Missing Link alone aren’t enough to make it truly unique to what Disney or Dreamworks is creating nowadays, fueled by massive franchises and streaming services.
That isn’t to say that all Laika films always have to tread the same visual ground. In fact, critics praised Laika for moving away from that more gothic style with 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings, and the same was true of some reviews for Missing Link.
“Sooner or later, Laika was bound to branch out, which makes this funnier, more colorful film the link previously missing between the company’s Goth-styled past and whatever comes next,” said Peter Debruge of Variety.
Unfortunately, audiences didn’t seem to agree this time around. Or really even notice.
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