During Pixar’s ascent, the upstart animation company first passed Disney and then kept climbing, turning out brilliant film after brilliant film, which put art before box office – but still managed to earn bucketsful of doubloons.
Then, somewhere along that joyous ride, Pixar finally began to make choices – aka “Cars 3” -- that were a dictated a little more by profit and a little less by creative inspiration. That mirrored the rise of Disney studios itself, which started out as Walt’s subversive genius force, and then evolved into a capitalistic empire where the brilliant animators lost control of the company’s compass. Voila: Splash Mountain!
I watched in amazement as Laika studios from Portland, Oregon, started its own ascent. Variety described the early vision of Laika films – “Coraline” and “Kubo and the Two Strings” -- as “dark, relatively intense cartoons liable to give young children nightmares.”
“ParaNorman” was another Laika triumph, a zombie-inspired story about the purity and power of kids.
Laika’s stop-motion technology took animation somewhere it had never been before. The animators’ labors are an act of love, with a single minute of film sometimes taking a short eternity to perfect.
“It took all 18 months of the animation schedule to produce a little less than two minutes of footage for the dance sequence in ‘Boxtrolls,’” said Anthsony Stacchi, who directed that Laika film.
The result of this intense commitment was that Laika passed Disney and pulled even with Pixar as the studio where artists controlled the choices, holding the marketing department at bay.
But as I watched Laika head up the rollercoaster of animation, I wondered if the studio, like its predecessors, would reach the top, crest and then head down the other side, waving its hands in the air as it descended out of the rarefied air of great art and into the humidity of compromised commercial choices.
“Missing Link,” Laika’s latest, is a brilliantly animated film that lacks a driving philosophical or moral concept at its core, settling for a light-hearted romp that’s more like mainstream Disney.
To use a political metaphor, Laika has decided to appeal to the moderates, rather than living on the edge and pushing the envelope. As one film site puts it, Laika is hoping that “audiences -- the ones that helped turn ‘Despicable Me 3’ and ‘Ice Age 5’ into hits -- will take notice.”
In fairness, though, it’s the purist in me that’s saying all this. The realist understands.
And, in fairness, “Missing Link” is a beautifully animated film spinning a friendly family tale.
The story starts out with Sir Lionel Frost going to the Pacific Northwest to search for Sasquatch/Bigfoot. We expect a long search, but Mr. Link, a furry gentle giant, appears quickly.
Turns out Mr. Link had puppeteered this expedition in hopes of soliciting the scientist’s help in locating his relatives in Shangri La in the Himalayas.
Mr. Link is lonely, longing for connection, tired of being objectified and hunted by greedy humans.
Give Laika credit for humanizing the Sasquatch, and for taking us on an almost spiritual journey that seeks to unite East and West, animal and human. Frost listens attentively to Mr. Link, treating him with utmost respect.
Mr. Link prefers the name Susan, a choice that might have been a subversive step into identity politics, but ends up merely being played for light laughs.
All those touches are admirable, but doesn’t keep the story from feeling routine, even uninspired at times. When a bounty hunter is assigned to track down and kill Sir Lionel Frost and Mr. Link, the film turns down a dead-end alley and abandons the magic of prior Laika stories. The action scenes are formula Hollywood distractions.
I love the artistry of Laika so much, it’s tempting to praise everything they do, just because of the stunning, painstaking animation. And many reviewers are doing just that – forgiving a conventional story because it’s created by a Northwest team of contemporary Monet's and Renoir's.
But I was bored too often during this film not to hold it accountable.
I’m disappointed and a bit worried by this turn towards conventionality. I hope Laika will return to the wonders of “Kubo” and play their subversive strings again.