One of these years, Laika will figure out how to tell a highly compelling story. When they do, look out.
The stop-motion animation studio founded by Nike Chairman Phil Knight and run by his son, Travis Knight, produces gorgeous, distinct-looking films. And they are films that, as with most mainstream animated works, mean well and offer lessons for young viewers.
However, the storytelling in a couple of their more recent efforts, "The Boxtrolls" (2014) and "Kubo and the Two Strings" (2016), left something to be desired. Conceptually, these tales are appealingly unusual, but they just don't grab you the way movies from competing animation houses often do.
Unfortunately, Laika's latest, "Missing LInk," is strikingly ordinary in concept -- an adventurer befriends a talking creature he believes to be the evolutionary midway point between ape and man -- at least when compared to the company's earlier works, which also include 2009's "Coraline" and 2012's "ParaNorman."
Worse, the storytelling even takes a step back, "Missing Link" offering a pretty snooze-worthy middle section.
But, hey, it does look good.
Written and directed by Chris Butler ("ParaNorman"), "Missing Link" starts out in a very fun way, introducing us to Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman), who, with the help of an assistant, tries to prove the existence of the Loch Ness Monster.
Having taken a rowboat into Loch Ness, Lionel plays some bagpipes to call to the beast. When it emerges, Lionel works to obtain a snapshot of himself with the monster in the background, while the creature works to eat the assistant.
"Carnivore," Lionel says to himself, mildly intrigued. "Huh."
After impressively and nonchalantly rescuing the assistant but breaking the camera in the process, Lionel soon finds himself with neither an assistant -- the gent has had enough of these adventures -- nor proof that the Loch Ness Monster is real.
This further prevents Lionel from acceptance into the Optimates Club, composed of snobby, unenlightened explorers. He is desperate for their approval, but they don't take him seriously.
When Lionel receives an oddly written letter from someone claiming to be able to provide proof of the existence of the evolutionary missing link, Lionel travels to America's Pacific Northwest. When he gets there, he soon finds the being -- 8 feet tall, 630 pounds and covered in fur. Lionel discovers that not only can this male, whom he quickly dubs "Mr. Link" (Zach Galifianakis), speak, but he also can write.
Mr. Link, who admits his penmanship needs work, reveals he was the author of the letter. His hope was to enlist Lionel's help in uniting him with other creatures he believes to be like him who live in another part of the world.
The two enter into a mutually beneficial arrangement, engaging in peril-filled journey to the fabled valley of Shangri-La. It is peril-filled largely because Lionel will need help from a grudge-holding former lady love, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), and to avoid being killed by William Stenk (Timothy Olyphant). The ugly little goon has been hired by the leader of the Optimates Club, who is obsessed with preserving the status quo.
In their time together -- and with the eventual help of Adelina -- Lionel and Mr. Link will learn more about themselves and the other. That all sounds well and good, but both the journey of friendship and the literal journey are largely, well, boring.
Something is missing from "Missing Link."
Maybe it's a lack of higher stakes or, perhaps, not enough interesting occurrences being peppered along the road to Shangri-La. Essentially, the script by Butler, who also wrote "Kubo," just doesn't hit home.
The voice work is fine -- Jackman offering the best performance of the key players -- but nothing all that interesting.
Again, "Missing Link" often looks terrific, never more so than during a well-designed and well-animated extended sequence aboard a ship as our trio of heroes tries to avoid Stenk.
Simply put, you want to like "Missing Link" more than you do. This fifth film from Laika certainly has some things going for it, not the least of which are valuable messages about acceptance, inclusion and friendship.
Still, it feels like it's time for the Laika folks to go back to the drawing board.