Most children’s movies are loud, crude, obnoxious and a whole host of other unpleasant descriptors. This knowledge comes to me firsthand from the countless hours I spend watching them with my 4-year-old. Some, on the other hand, cleverly reference Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and tip their hats to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.
Chris Butler’s Missing Link — the latest stop-motion animated feature from Laika, the studio that brought us Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings — is obviously one of the latter. Classic cinematic inspirations aside, the comedy about the quest of furry, forest-dwelling giant Mr. Link for his long-lost family has something to say, and that it’s able to say it with such nuanced ease and lack of potty humor is a minor miracle for a film aimed at kids.
Children’s movies are full of heroes who overcome their fears to save the day in some grand and dangerous fashion. You can almost set your watch to when the formerly timid boy or girl realizes his or her full potential, thus thwarting the evil witch, warlord or maniacal usurper. It’s a tried-and-true character arc, but its flaw lies in the continual reliance on violence to gain power or win the day.
Missing Link chooses another path. Its hero, Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman), grows emotionally instead of physically. He learns that his bravado and masculinity can hurt others and that if he really wants to make a difference and be the best person he can be, he needs to listen. Sir Lionel’s learned understanding of empathy (and his nonjudgmental use of Mr. Link’s chosen name of Susan) is such a refreshing change of tack that it makes something like How to Train Your Dragon look utterly idiotic and pointless by comparison.
That’s not all: In today’s sad state of anti-intellectualism and environmental carelessness, Missing Link — a movie about Bigfoot, mind you — is a lighthouse for the scientific method and conservationism. The villain, Lord Piggot-Dunceb (Stephen Fry), chooses to live free of scientific discovery, comfortable in his ivory tower of wealth, privilege and the manly traditions of colonialism and conquest. Even when faced directly with empirical evidence to the contrary, he chooses to ignore or cover up scientific data simply because it will interfere with his agenda of greed and maintained stature. A thinly veiled allegory, perhaps, but the point is well taken.
In addition to their fine-tuned storytelling, Butler and the Laika team have perfected the art of stop-motion animation. For my money, I’ll take their hands-on craftsmanship any day of the week over anything Disney or Pixar churns out. The level of care and quality is extraordinary, especially evidenced in the action sequences, which are refreshingly comprehensible compared with many peers’ jumbled messes of explosions and loud noises. A barroom brawl turns into a hilarious joy and a chase scene on a sinking ship is as dynamic as Inception.
Add to that the brilliant voice cast (including Zoe Saldana, Timothy Olyphant, Emma Thompson and an especially fun Zach Galifianakis), then top it off with intelligent commentary on class, feminism, gender identity, masculinity and the anti-science movement, and quite suddenly Missing Link becomes a surprise favorite of the year so far. Not bad for a movie about a talking, 8-foot-tall creature who wears ill-fitting clothes.