Laika’s Missing Link draws from a treasure trove of classic themes — it’s an adventure story set in Victorian times — but it’s also an impressively self-aware, updated piece. Each character, be it the self-important Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), the hapless Bigfoot Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis), or the widowed adventurer Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), breaks out of the mold set for them in ways that make it clear that, while this may be a period piece, it’s not a retread of old ground.
“I wanted to set it up like it was this old, classic Hollywood romantic adventure story,” said writer-director Chris Butler in an interview with Polygon. “Whenever I’m writing anything, I like to play in very well-established genres. I like to walk well-trodden paths, if you like, but I do like to try and do a little subversion because that’s the joy of telling stories, is that you put your own spin on it.”
That instinct toward subversion immediately makes itself known in the film’s cold open, which features a new take on the Loch Ness Monster (“an amphibious brachiosaur”), and the lead-in to Lionel’s desire to be accepted into the Optimates Club. The men who comprise the club — which is the epitome of the “good old boys” mentality — are pompous and narrow-minded, and ultimately destructive in the way they treat everyone (and everything) they perceive to be lesser than them.
“[They make] for a very easy villain, because as soon as you walk into that club and you see the trappings of these old lords, it’s very easy to hate them,” Butler noted. “I needed an antagonist who was also representative of what Sir Lionel thought he should be, and that’s the old guard. It just so happens that that was tapping into a lot of things that have some real cultural credibility at the moment.”
It’s the kind of detail that not only makes Missing Link feel particularly apt for the present political climate (even though Butler began writing the script over a decade ago) but a pleasant, refreshing surprise.
[Ed. note: Major spoilers for Missing Link follow.]
The best example of what sets Missing Link apart is the film’s conclusion. That the yetis, whom Mr. Link believes he’s related to, don’t want anything to do with him is certainly a twist, but even more striking is the way Adelina, Lionel’s former flame, rejects what would be the climactic, movie-ending kiss. Instead, she tells him that she thinks she can do better, and sets off for an adventure of her own.
“This is a story about characters who are looking for where they belong, trying to find where they belong; the search for Shangri-La really is that search for their own personal utopia,” Butler explained. “Adelina’s had to deal with some pretty big things — it’s Victorian times, so she’s already a second-class citizen as a woman, and she is a Latina, she’s an immigrant, and she lost her husband. She’s an explorer and an adventurer in her own right, so it would have been awful if, at the end of this journey, what she got out of it was to be girlfriend to a guy who’s a bit of a dick. [Laughs] Her reward at the end of the movie is figuring out that she can do whatever she wants, and she’s going to.”
The other characters also play with expectations in smaller ways. Lord Piggot-Dunceby, the imperious head of the Optimates Club, is played by Stephen Fry, who has one of the most immediately authoritative voices in the world. (Butler wrote the part with Fry in mind.) The diminutive, gremlin-esque bounty hunter Willard Stenk, meanwhile, is voiced by Timothy Olyphant.
“We got the world’s most handsome man to play the world’s ugliest villain,” Butler laughed. “Stenk could have gone in any number of directions in terms of his voice performance, and it was actually Travis [Knight, president and CEO of Laika] who suggested Timothy. When he first suggested it, I was like, ‘Are you insane? How could that possibly work?’ But it does. I’m still kind of shocked whenever I watch it, I have to remind myself that that’s Timothy. That’s part of the joy of this process, is you get to play around with expectations in a really entertaining way.”
They’re surprises — big and small — that fit perfectly into Butler’s vision for the film: “This story is about exploration, and discovering new corners of the world. It didn’t make sense to me to make it a contemporary story. Now, we know everything, we see everything. There is very little left to be discovered because we have access to everything at all times.” The Victorian era, for better or worse, “was truly an age of discovery,” and making Missing Link a period piece meant being able to tackle familiar landscapes from entirely new points of view, not just in terms of literal landscapes, but turning old stories on their heads.