*This article is a review of LAIKA studios latest film Missing Link. The writer of this article wants to express that they are not paid or compensated for this review in anyway by LAIKA studios and their partners. Yet the writer does know many of the artists and persons involved with the film and the studio. He would like to point out that these artists put love, passion, time and spent sections of their lives making and contributing to this film. In no way is this article a bashing or meant to downplay the amount of work it took to make this film. You are truly admired as artists and respected.*
LAIKA studios released what they hoped was to be a hit in theaters with their latest film Missing Link. This adventure film is a crafted beautifully and on-screen looks amazing but there are numerous problems with the film and it has yet to charm its viewers. With a below expected opening weekend box office it has still yet to draw an audience. Many ratings and reviews that I personally have seen mostly give this film praise but it begs the question as to what are these people getting out of this film and why the good reviews? Are they being paid advertising money or given gifts? Yes in some cases they are. Are they flown out to Portland like I was for a studio visit and be wined and dined all expenses paid. Also, yes and this is part of the Hollywood promotion machine. Nothing wrong with that unless you are being influenced by it and they basically are buying your praise for a steak dinner and a few glasses of wine in a posh hotel. Meaning buying your vote. I wonder what they are seeing that I am not in this film.
I can tell you I am not a fan of this film right off the bat. I like the two main characters and the lake monster. The production design is beautiful but the story bored me and at times just wasn’t necessary. So here is my brutally honest review. I’m not looking to make enemies or win praise here. It’s just very difficult to not express how I truly feel about this film.
I ventured out on the saturday morning during easter weekend which should have been a major draw for grandparents wanting to take their grandkids to the movies. I saw lots of older folks going to other films but in the Missing Link theater it was nearly empty. Maybe 5 other people and myself. No kids…
I had originally been invited to many press screenings for this film but due to a busy schedule I was unable to attend those screenings. Also, I was curious to actually watch the film within the ungroomed environment of the local theater instead of a high-end luxury projection room where most press screenings happen. So I have a lot of say about this film and I got to warn you it is not all good. Just like anything when you want to present bad news to a friend you have to ask “what do you want to hear first? The good news or the bad news?”. Well I’ll present the good news first.
So like I mentioned before the film is amazingly beautiful. The production design is so well stylized that it is unique in taste and draws the viewer into a fantastical world. It’s closest similarity can be described as maybe a hand drawn film similar to Disney classics such as Sleeping Beauty. The textures and color of the film are vibrant and well laid out. You can truly see the love that the production designer placed into this film and there is no question that it is magnificent in color, dimension, and breath.
Adding to the design is the mind boggling beauty of the clothing design for the production. The period pieces are so well crafted and detailed that knowing first hand the scale at which these puppets clothing are produced I truly find it hard to place words on my amazement at the feat. You can literally see the weave of the fabric in the characters clothing and to get this level of detail at this scale alone should be worthy of a major award.
Having seen how the puppets were produced in the studio I can tell you that there are amazing armature and rigging designs built into these characters. If only there was an Academy Award for Puppet Building. The crew at LAIKA is truly amazing and their hard work shows in everything that they do. I truly applaud their passion and efforts.
Okay, that’s the good… Here’s the bad…
The film is CGI… Nothing wrong with a film being CGI or a hybrid film mixing model animation with computer images. I personally love many CGI films and I even work in that field as an animator. So I know the techniques and various methods used to make things look photo-real. The problem is that this film is literally designed in a computer and then output to use the technique of stop motion to animate the puppets but then it is so polished that it looses the quirkiness of the stop motion performance. It literally is designed to look like a CGI film. This renders the whole point of doing a stop motion film useless. Sure LAIKA is on the fore front of stop motion animation with technology but so was Will Vinton studios at one point and we all know what happened to Vinton when he over extended himself.
Add to this narrative the environments and people populating this world are all CGI with the exception of a handful of shots. There literally is CGI something in every shot. Great you printed thousands of faces built in a computer and then placed them onto a physical object but we have seen this before and sure it’s great for somethings but it begs the question with this film, why does everything need to be touched by a computer? If the content of the film is mostly CGI or so slick that it looks CGI and not stop motion then why even use the stop motion technique at all? It seems like a total waste of the talented artists that work at the studio building stages, props, and puppets by hand. You want flaws in films and to over polish something you end up with blah… or meh… Meaning where’s the magic…?
For the unknowing and uneducated eye it doesn’t even matter that the film has a small number of stop motion characters. They just don’t care and are indifferent to if it is or if it isn’t. When something is blatantly stop motion like The Nightmare Before Christmas film and all the Wes Anderson stop motion films people are charmed by the flaws. So why is it so necessary to polish the artists finger prints completely out of the production and have machines build the work? Just make the film in CGI if you are going for ultra polished and focus more on the story which needed some serious work.
Adding to this the character designs of the two main characters are enjoyable and remind me of a lot of other artists out there that produce 2D hand drawn characters. They are not unique however or special in the sense of design but are the first stop motion characters to use this type of style that I’ve seen in a major film. (Look up Ben Whitehouse who is an amazing character designer. He is one of many artists that work in this style of classic hard edged line design and it’s almost as if LAIKA ripped off the style from these artists even though no one person can claim ownership).
That being said there are some seriously bad character designs in terms of facial structure. For one thing the female co-star character looks more like a villain than an independent well read and spoken character. She has all the tried and true traditional features of villains in animation. Yet she is also morphed in a way that is not flattering or appealing to the eye. The eyes, eyebrows, mouth, nose, chin, and cheeks all are typical evil villain markings. What’s odd is that they are all placed on one character instead of mixing a couple here and there. Though this is not necessary to follow the rules it does take away from the character given the personality is meh… If you look at the 2D production designs you can see that the translation from 2D to Stop Motion was just slightly off and that little difference makes a huge difference in design of the character and the personality.
Basically female lead facial design is off like I said and hard to look at. The proportions are completely out of whack and you can see that the 2D hand drawn character translation to the 3D CGI/Printed face did not translate well. She is nearly always scowling and add to this her personality in the film makes her even more unlikable. She is a co-star so you are supposed to make her somewhat likable. Either in personality or design. She lacks all of that and the only saving grace is the clothing design which is stunning. The other issue I had with this character is if she is going to speak Espanol you need to make it more pronounced and audible. When you use a language or a stereotype to construct a character it can and will read very poorly if done wrong. Instead of hiding the underbreathed phrases produced by this character that are in a different language the script and story should have embraced it. But they chose to stereotype a group of people through this character instead of embracing the culture and this is very disappointing.
Many of the characters in the film besides the two main characters are either hit or miss as well. For instance the person that designed the birds in this film needs their head examined. They are great from a distance but absolutely do not read well up close. The eyes are flat against the cranium of the bird and definitely do not match the designs of the human or mythical creature designs. The horse in the film is also slightly off with the eyes but then again this isn’t a big deal since we rarely get an extreme closeup of the creature. This is largely due to them probably being designed on paper as drawings and just not translating into a 3D model or puppet. The giant lake monster is AWESOME!!!! But kids it is a CGI monster in most shots. Sorry… Still awesome though.
Many of the background characters seem rushed as well in their designs. They just don’t read right and look off. Once again I have to point to the translation from 2D to 3D to Stop Motion but without them actually ever going to stop motion with these characters. The colors are flat on some, mis-painted on others, and bazaar on some of the far back characters. Because of all these character design flaws the film gets jarring at times when it bounces from one shot to another. They just don’t match up. A great example is the time the main character boards the boat for the USA. The characters on the bottom right are fine in the environment until you compare them with the stop motion animation on the left. It doesn’t blend completely and this is a little disturbing to watch if you know what you are seeing. Otherwise I’m sure it is passable for the untrained eye.
So now that I’ve beaten up the character designs I have to point to the story and the character performance. The three main lead actors of the film were amazing. In fact all the character voice over work was exceptional. The script and story however was poorly thought-out and executed. For one thing who is this film for? I can tell you right now it is not for little kids. The film has a lot of violence and fighting in it. There’s also the aspect of having to constantly save the helpless woman who seems to be strong but always needs to be helped… So confusing. If you are going to make a strong female lead then she should be saving the male characters. Instead the characters strong attitude and constantly needing to be rescued pushes this characters personality more to the side of bitchy and not strong. I really wanted to like her character but they ruined it for me by making her weak, defense-less and dependent on a man to save her every time.
Then there is the whole thing of is this female lead character even necessary. She has no point in the story. You could literally write her out of the story and it would instantly get better. There’s this odd uncomfortable sexual tension that just doesn’t perform right between the characters. It’s extremely hard to connect them as past lovers even though we are blatantly told this in the dialogue. This begs the question then why is she even there? The dialogue between her and the main character is slow and boring and adds nothing dynamic to the story. It’s like watching two people drink coffee at a cafe and really neither of them want to be there. Actually that would be more entertaining. There just isn’t a good interplay between these two characters.
What the director/writer should have done is made the film a buddy film with slap stick instead of straight overly aggressive violence. The leads could be either 2 women or 2 men or a combo. That isn’t what matters. There literally is no need for a ton of guns, bloody noses, and fist to face aggression throughout the film. That alone makes this film not a suitable one for children. There’s even a stabbing with a giant icicle as one of 3 people fall to their death! Why???
I guess they are gearing this film towards teenage boys then… Well personally I can tell you teenage boys only care about girls, getting into trouble, cars, music, and video games. They don’t care about films like this so the violence is completely unnecessary.
A coming of age/self discovery/buddy film is exactly what this film needed to be and it would have been a lot more entertaining and fun. Yet the over the top violence and unnecessary intimate moments make this film nose dive in audience attention given the design of the film. Sure those things are great in adult films but this is an animated film with character designs that are more geared towards children than adults. So once again why would you do that in a film like this?
It’s apparent that LAIKA doesn’t know their audience anymore. Or maybe they never did… It’s a hard thing to face but given that as LAIKA historically progressed with their technology they made less and less money on box office releases. This sounds like history repeating itself since Will Vinton studios also invested heavily in technology and walked away from it’s traditional techniques. If we compare a film like Coraline which used 3D printing to manufacture the facial animation we can see a film that is largely stop motion animation to very little CGI in ratio with a beautifully executed story. It was a successful film that had a strong female lead and was sweet, entertaining, and magical. Fast forward to Missing Link and we have a film that is largely CGI influenced or produced (animated real puppets but a lot of computers to build, design, and even populate the environments). We have a film that seems to be more focused on technology and not the story. The film is not doing well in theaters and I’m sure many factors besides story and design play into this but I can’t help but feel that LAIKA is Missing the Link that connects good films with high audience draw.
Hey how about reviving Henry Selicks “The Shadow King” film?
Oh yeah they passed on that one…
Well maybe better luck next time…