Stop-motion animation has enjoyed an unprecedented efflorescence in recent years, and the Portland, Ore.-based Laika Studios has been one of the leaders of the art form in America. Sadly, Laika’s new feature, “Missing Link,” fails to match the striking visuals and compelling characters in its Oscar-nominated 2016 film “Kubo and the Two Strings.”
Sir Lionel Frost (voice by Hugh Jackman) is a 19th century cryptozoologist whose sole aim in life is to discover a spectacular unknown animal, earning him a place in the snooty Optimates’ Club. A cast of an outsize footprint leads him to the Pacific Northwest, where he stumbles upon an 8-foot-tall Bigfoot he dubs Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis).
The leader of the Optimates’ Club, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), who rails against the Darwinian notion of an apelike “missing link,” has sworn never to admit Sir Lionel to the group. He dispatches nasty hired gun Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant) to kill Sir Lionel and Mr. Link.
That duo is already racing across Eurasia, hoping to locate Shangri-La, the mythical Himalayan kingdom of Yetis where Mr. Link may find a home among similar creatures. They’re joined by the Spanish widow of an old friend of Sir Lionel’s, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana). While they evade Stenk’s murderous attacks, Adelina teaches Sir Lionel the rather obvious lesson that he must recognize Mr. Link’s humanity (even if he’s not really a human) and treat him with appropriate respect and kindness.
Mr. Link is rejected by the Yeti Elder (Emma Thompson), who fears his presence could endanger their hidden realm. To no one’s surprise, the trio outwits the Yeti guards and Stenk and Piggot-Dunceby, leaving Sir Lionel free to set off on a new adventure, with Mr. Link playing a sort of Dr. Watson to his Sherlock Holmes.
The animation matches the polish of the earlier Laika features, but none of the character designs approaches the originality of Kubo, Monkey or the Moon King in “Kubo.” Although these characters move fluidly, many of what are intended as comic moments fail to land due to ineffective timing. Writer-director Chris Butler displays an excessive fondness for overhead shots, which may be technically impressive but become an annoying distraction as the film grinds on.
A bigger problem is the story, which feels wearily derivative. The journey to Shangri-La is obviously modeled on Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days,” but it lacks the rollicking fun of the original. For decades, cartoonists have played with caricatured veterans of the British Raj, from cartoonist David Low’s Colonel Blimp to Colonel Hathi in Disney’s “The Jungle Book.” But “Missing Link” fails to update the clichéd accents and eccentricities, so Piggot-Dunceby and too many of the other characters come across as stale and dated.
Ultimately, “Missing Link” feels like a “Wallace & Gromit” wanna-be without the charm or laughs. After the poetry of “Kubo and the Two Strings,” it’s a major disappointment.
Rated: PG, for action/peril and some mild rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes