Tag: laika

Missing Link

Missing Link (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Laika’s latest outing “Missing Link” has nearly all the elements to make a wonderful adventure film for the whole family. Technically, it is a marvel. As a whole, however, the picture is a disappointment because it fails to grab the viewers on an emotional, gut level. It is strange because the story’s theme is belongingness. We follow two outcasts—an explorer and a mythical beast who are strangers initially—who travel across the globe with the goal of finding a place or group of likeminded individuals who will accept them for who they are. The story’s trajectory is familiar and so the details that compose of that path must be special in order for the work to stand out from its contemporaries—animated film or otherwise.

I enjoyed the film for its seemingly insignificant details. Notice when a character is recalling either a painful or cherished memory, the listener, human or non-human, reacts—a small smile, for instance, that forms suddenly from a neutral expression or how one’s head tilts at a precise moment of surprise or concern which confirms that he or she is indeed interested in what is being shared. These animated figures are made to embody the body language of actual people and so it does not at all require effort to relate to the characters’ personalities, motivations, purpose, or hopes for the future.

More generic animated movies are more concerned about delivering kaleidoscopic colors and busy action. While the film, written and directed by Chris Butler, delivers on those fronts—perhaps most impressive a scene where our protagonists are being hunted by a bounty hunter aboard a ship that undergoes various acrobatics due to a storm—colors and action almost always have clear context behind them. Sure, there are silly pun-filled jokes, but remove such one-liners altogether and meat remains on screen. In other words, the filmmakers are not simply interested in providing sensory, shallow entertainment. It enjoys getting us to think or consider once a while and that is invaluable.

The voice work by Hugh Jackman, as the British explorer Sir Lionel Frost who specializes in providing proof of mythical creatures’ existence, and Zach Galifianakis, as a Sasquatch capable of speaking English despite living in isolation out in the wilderness, is top-notch. In the middle of the movie, I became convinced that the two must have provided their lines in the same room, facing each other. Emotions behind the words command force, jokes land more often than not—which requires precise delivery especially when the point is to underline culture clash, and a convincing sense of camaraderie gets stronger as the work moves forward. If the voice actors actually recorded at different times, I would be even more impressed.

But the work did not move me emotionally—at least not on the level the screenwriter intended to move the viewer. I think it is due to a character I found to be completely unnecessary. Ms. Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), Sir Frost’s romantic interest, appears to be around only to deliver sassy comments and explain or highlight the life lessons that Sir Frost and Mr. Link (the Sasquatch) are supposed to be learning about themselves. By vocalizing the insights that should naturally come about throughout the duo’s journey, it cheapens the material. On this level, it assumes that viewers—especially children—are lacking self-awareness, a critical miscalculation that leaves a sour lasting impression.

The Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Right after the kidnapping of the Trubshaw baby, the leader of Cheesebridge, Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris), makes a deal with a social-climbing exterminator, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), to rid the town of the so-called boxtrolls, pests who come out of hiding from underground to steal trash, valuables, and other knickknacks. As a reward, Snatcher would receive a white hat—a symbol of privilege, prestige, and position—as well as the most delectable types of cheese, strictly reserved for the upperclass. The hunt for the boxtrolls is seemingly coming to a close a decade after the baby was taken from his father.

“The Boxtrolls,” based on “Here Be Monsters!” by Alan Snow, is an entertaining animated picture that is willing to take risks. Be warned, however, that it is not for all children because the characters are not what one might consider to be typically pretty or cute or beautiful. This is exactly the reason why I enjoyed it: We are asked to look beyond the grotesque faces—whether the character is a human or a troll—and consider the story for what it is or what it aspires to be. There are claims that the material makes more than a handful of references to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. There is evidence behind these claims, but it does not mean that it cannot be enjoyed purely as a movie about a boy named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) who grew up around trolls.

The villain is surprisingly effective. Although what Snatcher does is evil, there are a few instances where the screenplay allows us to feel his pain and so we come to understand what drives his actions. One of the most memorable scenes involves the character eating cheese in front of his henchmen (Nick Frost, Richard Ayaoade, Tracy Morgan) despite the fact that he is extremely allergic to it. His desperation to belong in a world that does not want him is communicated via grotesque humor of body parts swelling up. I loved that the scene takes its time to unfold, almost on a Hitchcock-ian level of patience.

A bit of development between Eggs and Winnie (Elle Fanning), Lord Portley-Rind’s daughter, might have improved the picture. We appreciate that they share a partnership because they aim toward a common goal eventually, but we never get the sense that they become friends over the course of the story. I did, however, enjoy that Winnie is so fascinated by the idea of blood and guts given that she grew up around horror stories involving boxtrolls and what they supposedly do to children. It is a welcome change from young female animated characters who wear pretty clothes and yearning for a boy or man to regale her.

Snatcher’s henchman, too, do have distinct, memorable personalities. Usually, henchmen are only supposed to do what they are told. Here, they have a few self-aware lines about the duality of good and evil, whether their actions can still be considered to be heroic. Although their work starts off with the premise of saving the townsfolk, especially infants and children, from being taken by the creatures in the sewers, over time they realize that maybe the trolls they are hunting are not so bad, that maybe these creatures are simply misunderstood.

Directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, “The Boxtrolls” is unusual and proud of it. I admired that the writers, Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, and filmmakers choose not to compromise their vision in order to create a more mainstream, typically sweet and pretty animated film. I hope the stop-motion animation studio Laika keeps making movies like this—an alternative choice from Disney and Pixar efforts both in look and feel of their wonderful works.

Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A horrifying number of animated movies these days are not for smart children. Rather, they exist to sell products, to be cute, to be loud, to entertain and then to be forgotten the moment the story ends—sometimes even before since such endings must be happy and frothy. Cue the annoying dance sequence as the credits roll. “Kubo and the Two Strings,” directed Travis Knight, offers an alternative: although the medium is animation and, historically, animated pictures are usually aimed at children, it has the ambition to appeal to viewers across ages, genders, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds because of what it is really about—elements that define our humanity.

Here is an animated film that is unafraid of silence. In fact, it embraces the lack of sound like a warm embrace, highly reminiscent of the more thoughtful, sensitive, and captivating moments of legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”—and appropriate given the influence of Japanese culture in this particular story. Others can and will reduce the plot like this: a one-eyed boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) goes on a journey to acquire items that would help him defeat the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), Kubo’s very own grandfather who wish to collect his remaining eye. But Kubo’s journey and such items function as symbols for our protagonist’s true journey is an internal one.

Laika is a production company that continues to establish itself as Pixar’s counterpart for its willingness to embrace the bleak, the bizarre, and the difficult—while delivering an absorbing story—through the lens of gorgeous stop-motion animation. One that impressed me particularly involves a scene where Kubo, a determined snow monkey (Charlize Theron), and an insomniac beetle (Matthew McConaughey) must battle a giant skeleton in order to acquire a so-called Sword Unbreakable. I sat in my chair awe-struck as seemingly thousands of elements are juggled at once to create a most exciting and creative battle sequence that is also brimming with surprises. Astonished, I wondered how long the filmmakers took to film such an ambitious sequence.

And yet while it seems as though large strokes appear perfect on the canvas, the closer I looked, I noticed flaws that are intended to be there. An obvious imperfection is Kubo having only one eye. Another one is a rather large scar on the face of our young hero’s mother. Even the monkey has a mark on her face. Later, having been engaged in several violent confrontations, a bruise can be found on Kubo’s face. Our characters tend to move a bit slower as the journey goes on, only to be revved up again when life-or-death scenario arises.

These are interesting choices—fresh choices—because it makes the story and the journey that much more life-like. Here, our characters get tired. They get wounded. They consider their mortality. In return, we genuinely fear for their safety. We feel there is an excellent probability that not all of them would make it to the end. We even get a serious glimpse into their dreams. These elements are largely absent in animated movies which is exactly why “Kubo and the Two Strings,” based on the screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, is head and shoulders above their counterparts.