Review: Missing Link

I didn’t expect a lot from this movie. But I especially didn’t expect to spend more than an hour after the movie entrenched in articles and websites as I researched more about stop-motion animation and how Missing Link was made. To be honest, I didn’t really pay attention to the trailer I had seen a few months back, and thought that it was just another studio pushing a typical CGI kid’s movie through the production line. But I should have paid more attention, and now I think you can too.
The movie itself was alright. The plot was fairly simple: A selfish English explorer in the Victorian era travels to find his “missing link” in the human evolution – the Sasquatch – in an effort to prove himself worthy. He travels across the pond to the state of Washington and, after discovering the creature rather quickly, learns that the Sasquatch actually wants his help in traveling to live with his distant cousins, the Yetis. Finding an agreement, they set off for the Himalayas, only to be relentlessly pursued by men who will stop at nothing to cover up the expedition and existence of mankind’s ancestors. The actors behind the characters gave some good voice performances (Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana, & Stephen Fry) and there were several funny moments mixed in among others that fell flat, but unlike the jumps in story that will be easily missed by their target audience, few people will likely give this movie second thought. But it’s the animation that’s worth the discussion here! So please, allow me to go off on a wild tangent for three minutes as I share with you a lot of things that I only recently learned but find completely fascinating! (Skip to the bottom if you only cared to read a plot review)
Stop-motion animation has been around since the turn of the 20th century, just 10 years after the first motion picture film was believed to be recorded in England. The industry films have looked different over the years, with two of the most notable styles using puppets and clay figures. Movies like The Lost World (1925), King Kong (1933), and Clash of the Titans (1981) are still regarded as some of the highest achievements in film of their time. More recently, even hybrid stop-animation films (some use of CGI) have lost popularity in comparison with other styles of film, as they only use computer-animation mostly to fill in the background behind set pieces and change facial expressions after shooting a movie is complete. But even that started to evolve just 10 years ago with a production company named LAIKA and their Director of Rapid Prototype, Brian McLean, who worked to create a new style of stop-motion animation known as “replacement animation.” Using this art form, many facial expressions for characters are created in advance and then replaced shot after shot to give the effect of smaller movements, which can be edited later for smooth transitions. McLean began to create these character faces using a 3D printer, and even won an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Scientific and Engineering Award in 2016 for the process. LAIKA studios was founded in 2005 and has since produced 5 stop-animation films: Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014), Kubo and the Two Strings (2016, a personal favorite of mine), and now Missing Link (2019).
The accomplishments and advancements in their new 3D-printed replacement hybrid animation have even taken many bounds since beginning almost 15 years ago. For their first film, Coraline, the team printed over 6,000 faces to use in filming, and the movie took nearly four years to finish, even while lead by one of the premier stop-motion directors at the time, Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach). Each character face had to be printed in black and white and then individually painted (no wonder it took 4 years). The team for Missing Link, however, with newcomer Chris Butler (ParaNorman, Kubo and the Two Strings) both writing and directing, now has color 3D printing available (time saver) and was able to print over 106,000 faces for this film, making the facial intricacies almost lifelike, and finishing the film just 3 years after its predecessor. That, combined with the hundreds of components put into every character puppet (averaging 9 months to create…talk about character depth), are what make this newer form of stop-animation a true art masterpiece.
I don’t know what future advancements in this industry will look like since I basically just took a crash course, but I bet they are working on new technology even as I type. Missing Link looked beautiful, as the characters’ movements and facial expressions eerily resemble humans, and every designed set piece rivals the use of CGI backgrounds. As with every LAIKA film, if you do take the time to see it, stick around as the credits roll to see some of their behind-the-scenes work with characters and set pieces. The time and skill they put into making this film deserves much more credit than it will receive, especially considering the average return for stop-motion films. I’m glad I saw this film, if only to learn as much as I have about the making of it and others like it. If you stuck it out and read through, then I hope you learned a little too and find time to support this fading art. I’ll be back soon with another streaming series review, this time with one that is more current in culture 🙂 Cheers!

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