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Missing Link, the new animated film from lauded stop-motion studio LAIKA (responsible for so many fantastic animated adventures over the last decade such as Kubo and the Two Strings, ParaNorman and Coraline) is the tale of an unlikely friendship between Sir Lionel Frost, an ambitious explorer, and his latest discovery; an 8-foot-tall, hairy creature known in mythology as "The Missing Link", thought by some to be the evolutionary bridge between ape and man.
This exciting encounter, however, comes with a big surprise - this creature can talk (maybe a little too much) and he needs Sir Lionel to help him make his way across the globe to Tibet where he believes his ancestors might be waiting for him. So begins a globetrotting adventure, described as "a travelogue combining Sherlock Holmes, Around the World in 80 Days and monsters", which will take Lionel and Mr. Link on a journey of both physical exploration and self-discovery that will change their lives forever.
LAIKA's beautiful work with stop-motion animation has received great praise from all corners of the industry, with 2016's Kubo and the Two Strings nominated for best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards® that year. In an era where CGI is so prevalent, there is certainly something refreshing about the incredible effort from LAIKA that goes into making their films stand out from the crowd in such an aesthetically pleasing fashion. In a way, LAIKA's animation process is very similar to one of the themes found in Missing Link, an exciting clash of tradition and modernity. They combine the classic animation technique of stop-motion, pioneered in some of the earliest films such as Méliès' Le Voyage Dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), with technological advancements that allow for unique styles to unfold with each subsequent film.
With Missing Link, this advancement comes in the form of 3D printing technology. Stop-motion has always been a meticulous way of animating a story but 3D printing, which LAIKA have been utilising since 2009's Coraline, means animators can now digitally create character's various facial expressions on a computer and then print them off instead of having to individually sculpt and animate each one by hand. With Missing Link's 106,000 different facial constructs (a huge increase from Coraline's "mere" 20,000), a whole new world of possibilities opens up in terms of representing human emotion and body language within animation. Still, it is astonishing to think that the goal of the animators was to create just 4.3 seconds of footage a day, a clear indication of just how painstaking the stop-motion process is.
For the best example of how creatively rewarding stop-motion can be, look no further than Missing Link's opening scene, in which Sir Lionel Frost attempts to capture the previously undiscovered Loch Ness Monster (by playing bagpipes underwater of course). Truly stunning in both terms of its action and visual ingenuity, the watercolour purple of the sky blends in beautifully with the inky blues of the Loch itself and the characters fit seamlessly into the richly detailed landscape.
Missing Link is more than just a great example of visual craft however. Writer/Director Chris Butler (ParaNorman) is telling a story set in the past (the Victorian era to be exact) which nevertheless has a hugely contemporary message. The two protagonists at the heart of the story, Sir Lionel Frost and Mr. Link (who later christens himself Susan) are both outsiders working hard to fit into their respective social circles; Sir Lionel is shunned by his peers for his belief in mythological creatures, and is eager to prove his worth, whilst Mr. Link is desperate to cure his loneliness by finding his long-lost relatives in the ancient valley of Shangri-La.
Sir Lionel's work as an explorer seems like the most exciting job on the planet. He prides himself on the unearthing of things that have previously been hidden to the world, hoping that if he can one day find proof of the existence of one of these myths then the Optimates Club in London will let him join their ranks. He first sees Mr. Link as his opportunity at fame and acceptance but, as the film goes on and Sir Lionel bonds with his new companion, he begins to realise (with the help of fiercely independent adventurer Adelaide Fortnight) that some things are more important than trying to simply fit in with everyone else.
Mr. Link is the true heart of this story and also provides us with its most thrilling and hilarious moments. Having only learned how to speak by spying on humans, and having never set foot in regular society, he is truly a fish-out-of-water and his gigantic, lolloping physicality is incredibly fun to watch. Yet his loneliness also shines through and the fact he has never met any of his own species is a sad and palpable truth that drives the narrative forward. It is very telling that after a conversation with Sir Lionel in which he proposes Mr. Link come up with his own name instead of allowing others to define him, that Mr. Link changes his name to Susan. After a brief moment of confusion, Sir Lionel quickly accepts this as a big step for his friend in terms of forging his own identity.
For both Sir Lionel and Mr. Link, their process of exploring, discovering and ultimately attempting to mould the world around them is conflicting with their need to feel like they belong. By the film's conclusion though, complete with a thrilling and literal cliff-hanger, both our heroes simultaneously discover that their identity is not defined by acceptance into a typical social circle. The friendship that blossoms between our two wildly different heroes proves that whilst everybody wants to belong, it is not worth sacrificing who we truly are in order to get there.
Missing Link will be in cinemas across the UK on Friday 5 April.
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