For the last decade, LAIKA Studios has delivered incredible works of art and artistry in the stop-motion animated films Coraline, ParaNorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings. Multiple Oscar nominations among them, all of them featuring a mixture of genre, tone, settings, and original or adapted storylines. The studio’s award-winning animation techniques have also evolved from one film to the next so that no two films are alike. The one core similarity that runs through every LAIKA film, however, is an ambitious storytelling spirit anchored by charismatic, compelling characters. Missing Link continues this trend and offers up LAIKA’s most adventurous and most accessible, family-friendly film yet.
The film’s sprawling journey centers on Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), a self-involved myths and monsters investigator, who gets called upon by Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis) an eight-foot tall bigfoot who’s looking for help to find his long lost relatives. The journey walks a line between a swashbuckling adventure and a gentle picaresque. Writer-director Chris Butler is dealing with more locations than past LAIKA movies and with good reason: As ever, they’ve handcrafted (with some computer-augmented help) a world of painterly detail and sometimes astonishing color. Missing Link (which is by far LAIKA’s least ghoulish, spooky movie) makes especially vivid use of more autumnal hues. Mr. Link himself, with his fur matted into leaflike clumps, looks a bit like a tree bursting with orange leaves — often even squeezed into tailored Victorian clothing.
Missing Link does have its shortcomings though, its humor is hit-or-miss and there’s the narrative itself. Butler could have pushed the Lionel Frost character’s willingness to use those around him to achieve his own ends a bit more aggressively. The movie feels like it wants to go in this direction but opts to keep Frost a gentleman by definition, robbing his character’s arc and the story of some of its fullness. There’s also LAIKA’s expertise at delivering believable action and characters in a stop-motion animated format which is beyond impressive, so much so that Missing Link could easily be mistaken for a 100% computer-animated film. The studio and their films are victims of their own success in this regard since casual moviegoers likely aren’t aware that each and every frame of this film was hand-crafted and full of painstaking details across the multiple sets. Which alone is worth your time to watch the film. Missing Link is an absolute technical marvel with charismatic characters, impressive visuals, and enough heart to make this a solid family favorite, that will hopefully stand the test of time.
Directed by Julia Hart, from a script she cowrote with her husband Jordan Horowitz, Fast Color doesn’t lack for ambition: It’s part superhero origin story, part multigenerational family drama, part near-future dystopian fable. Nor does the film feel the need to skywrite its themes, content instead to let its audience dwell on moments like that dash through the field and draw from them what resonance they will. Hart’s aims exceed her reach a little, yes. But the ambition along to tackle too many themes and ideas isn’t the worst flaw to have.
Set in a dry, dystopian future where a half gallon of clean water goes for $12, Fast Color focuses on a unique family on the run that has come to back to the safest place: home. Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Ruth, a drug addict in recovery who used narcotics to treat her frequent seizures, which were not only dangerous for her, but also for the Earth, as they spur earthquakes even in the plains. She left home years ago and left behind her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney), outrunning a scientist named Bill (Christopher Denham), who hopes to study Ruth in a government lab. Fast Color boasts some terrific technical aspects including lush cinematography by Michael Fimognari, a sumptuous score by Rob Simonsen and a great performance by Mbatha-Raw, Fast Color does, though, struggle with its flimsy narrative.
Fast Color does, though, dig into its thematic underpinnings of a story about a woman whose gifts nearly destroy the thing most precious to her, and about the ways in which fear, anger, resentment and strength can be inherited. While also taking the direct super-powers involved and having them carry a solid amount of subtext. But, yeah, it’s a lot. And while the film never neglects its various elements, it does feel a little overstuffed at times. Then again, it’s still very refreshing to see superpowered characters on a smaller, more intimate scale. Saving the world and nefarious government figures are background to what’s happening between Bo, Ruth and Lila. If you like your superhero stories done with intimacy and grace, you’ll want to make time for Fast Color even if it doesn’t feature name-brand superheroes.