One of the first things we learn in Chris Butler’s new stop-motion animated feature Missing Link is that it’s not easy being Victorian England’s foremost seeker of mythical beasts. That’s the distinction held by Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), whose greatest aspiration is to join the Optimates Club, a society of explorers led by a curmudgeon named Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry). One day, Frost receives a letter informing him that an “as yet undiscovered creature” known as the Sasquatch is lurking in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. A less enterprising soul might be a bit skeptical at this point, but Frost hopes to find the beast and thus provide proof of man’s primitive ancestry. Piggot-Dunceby, who is no fan of evolutionary theory, decides to hire an assassin to make sure Frost doesn’t succeed.
This is new territory for Butler. Prior to making his directorial debut with ParaNorman (2012), Butler worked on the horror comedies Coraline (2009) and Corpse Bride (2005). For his latest project, however, Butler seems to have forsworn the uncanny in favor of a globe-trotting adventure epic.
Which isn’t to say that there are no monsters to tangle with here. When we first meet him, Frost is in a rowboat on Loch Ness, trying to summon the most famous resident of the Scottish Highlands with subaqueous bagpipes. Bad idea. It turns out that Nessie doesn’t take kindly to being lassoed for a photo op.
The Sasquatch, on the other hand, is far more accommodating, not least because he is voiced by Zach Galifianakis. For such an elusive creature, he’s also pretty easy to find. After traveling to the wilds of Washington State, Frost has barely left the trailhead before he’s face to face with an eight-foot primate who speaks fluent English and goes by Susan. Tellingly, we don’t learn this latter detail until later in the film, as Frost initially gives his new companion the name Mr. Link. Silly colonialist.
Susan (or Mr. Link) seeks to be united with distant relatives on the other side of the world: the Yeti. After some initial reservations, Frost agrees to take Susan to the Himalayas. Because why settle for a single Sasquatch when you can become famous for proving the existence of an entire evolutionary branch? If I had a nickel for every time I asked myself that question.
Frost and Susan are eventually joined by Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), whose late husband created the only known map to the Yeti’s ancestral home of Shangri-La. As if they didn’t have their hands full enough already, they must contend with the skulking presence of Stenk, Piggot-Dunceby’s hired hit man.
Maybe it’s because I’ve spent too much time watching depressing Netflix documentaries, but I was seduced by Missing Link’s peculiar silliness. There’s something disarming about seeing Bigfoot in a plaid yellow suit. It also feels like a stroke of creative genius that, when we finally meet the Yeti, they don’t turn out to be man-eating monsters so much as irredeemable snobs. Their leader (Emma Thompson) dismisses Susan as a redneck.
For all its levity, however, there are moments where, for better or worse, this movie wants to be more than frivolous entertainment. Butler was apparently inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark, and indeed, Missing Link is full of allusions to the Indiana Jones franchise. It seems inevitable that certain aspects of those films—the campy orientalism, say—wouldn’t fly anymore. Butler is likely aware of this, and one wonders if, on some level, Missing Link is trying to atone for the sins of its predecessors when it flaunts its progressive credentials. Late in the game, Fortnight announces out of the blue that, rather than shacking up with Frost, she’s going off to have her own adventures. (At this point, the man sitting next to me in the cinema actually cried out in dismay.) And Susan’s ambiguous gender is clearly meant as a wry acknowledgement of evolving ideas about the nature of identity.
But Missing Link never tries to unpack any of the more complex themes that it teasingly alludes to. (Whatever adventures Fortnight is going to have, they will happen offscreen.) If there’s a lesson here, it’s that perhaps Freud was right when he said that sometimes a Sasquatch movie is just a Sasquatch movie.
Missing Link’s denouement takes place on a perilous ice bridge. Piggot-Dunceby, who for some reason has dragged his bigoted self into the Himalayas, is oblivious when the ice starts crackling beneath his feet. Is this Butler’s sly metaphor for global warming? Is he sticking it to the anti-science crowd? Maybe the message is more elemental: don’t be a priggish bastard, or sooner or later you’ll get what’s coming to you.