Movie reviews: Beautiful 'Missing Link' engages the eyes, but not the brain
The a scene from the new stop-motion animated adventure film "Missing Link" from Laika.
Richard Crouse, Contributor, CTV News Channel and CTV News Digital
Published Friday, April 12, 2019 7:00AM EDT
MISSING LINK: 3 STARS
The new animated film from Laika, the folks behind beautiful stop motion movies like "Coraline," "Paranorman" and "Kubo and the Two Strings," is an odd couple, historical adventure that brings to mind "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Planes, Trains & Automobiles."
Hugh Jackman voices Victorian-era explorer Sir Lionel Frost. Dressed head to toe in houndstooth, he's an anthropologist of sorts, scouring the world in search of mythical beasts. He tries to lure the Loch Ness Monster with bagpipes. "They do say music soothes the savage beast."
Despite his adventurous spirit his peers at London's Optimates Club don't take him seriously. Desperate to secure his legacy, he follows the lead of an anonymous letter about Bigfoot sightings in America. "He's neither ape nor man," he says, "but something in between." If he can track down the elusive beast he hopes the snobby Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) will be won over and offer membership into the exclusive club.
Trouble is, Piggot-Dunceby is an old racist who doesn't actually want progress in the form of new biological discoveries or anything else. "We have brought good table manners to savages of the world over," he says proudly, "Now, they all tinker with changing the world and soon there will be no room left for me." He's so dead set against Frost's mission he hires Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), an assassin to make sure the missing link goes unfound.
Meanwhile, it turns out the elusive Sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis) isn't so elusive. The 8-foot-tall beast introduces himself almost as soon as Frost arrives in the Pacific Northwest. Mr. Link, as Frost calls him, can speak, has opposable thumbs and, most poignantly, is lonely. "Your world gets bigger every day as mine gets taken away." He wrote the letter in hopes that Frost would "discover" him and escort him to his ancestral homeland, the Himalayan mountains, where he hopes to meet others like him, his long-long Yeti cousins. "I need someone who knows the wild places of the world," he says. "Who won't shoot me." Together, along with Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), the widow of Frost's ex-partner, they set off to Phileas Fogg-it around the world,
In search of adventure and Mr. Link's long-lost relatives.
"Missing Link" is beautiful looking with the special animated feel that only comes with the stop motion technique. The visuals feel organic, handmade in a way that slicker, computer generated movies simply don't. In fact, the visuals held my attention even when the story didn't.
Woven into the script are timely messages about British colonialism, sometimes earnest — "The world," says The Elder (Emma Thompson) to Frost, "is something to be claimed as a symbol of their worth." — sometimes funny — they find Shangri-La or in the Yeti language, "Keep out, we hate you."—that are timely and make a good argument for personal evolution. "Do we shape the world," asks Frost, "or does the world shape us?"
It's good stuff and Galifianakis's Mr. Links is also a treat. An innocent with an imposing physical presence is a classic cartoon trope and with equal amounts of slapstick and poignancy, he livens up the proceedings. Galifianakis does great, understated voice work from the heartbroken — "I don't want to have to spend the rest of my life alone. Won't you take me there?" — to the hilarious — "Your utopia sucks!" It's a wonderful performance that provides the movie with a great deal of heart.
Galifianakis aside, "Missing Link's" over-all story misses the mark. Fight scenes make up much of the running time but (BIGTIME SPOILER ALERT) it's Mr. Link's assimilation into the human world that seems to run counter to the story's overall anti-colonialist subtext. It puts a pretty bow on the tale and even sets it up for a sequel but makes absolutely no sense given the spirit of the film. Add to that a supporting role for a woman that isn't quite as evolved as I‘m sure the filmmakers assumed and you have a film that will engage the eyes — it's beautiful looking — but not the brain.
HELLBOY: 3 STARS
How does the new, rebooted "Hellboy" differ from the Guillermo Del Toro films that introduced the hell spawn character to filmgoers? The title character looks basically the same, red skin, sawed-off-horns and wise cracks his way through battles with supernatural creatures, just like the older movies. What is different is the attitude. Del Toro's films were idiosyncratic action adventures with a supernatural twist. The new movie, directed by Neil Marshall, feels more like playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons as Judas Priest blares in the background.
This time around "Stranger Things" star David Harbour plays the wise cracking half-demon, an employee of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.), an organization founded by his adopted father (Ian McShane) to combat various occult threats. Several battles with undead English giants, a vampiric Lucha libre wrestler and a massive, angry pigman lead him to the world's biggest threat, Nimue the Blood Queen, played by Milla Jovovich. From her Big Red learns of his true origins as she tries to convince him to embrace the dark side and help her bring on the apocalypse.
"Hellboy" Mach 3 feels more down-and-dirty than the other films. It plays up the "boy" part of Big Red's name as he comes of age. He's a motor mouth with a devil-may-care attitude. "I met [Egyptian deity] Ra once in the underworld," he says. "He was a close talker." Beneath the bluster—and his giant stone arm—however, is a more complicated guy, someone born a monster with noble aspirations. Covered in layers of make-up, Harbour hits the right mix of smart aleck and conflicted guy, giving the character an aura that falls somewhere between grandeur and silliness, superhero and supernaturalhero.
But the movie is not all Sturm und Drang. Marshall makes sure Big Red is frequently raising hell and often covered in buckets of blood. "Hellboy" gory and grimy, loud and proud, more horror than fantasy. It's fun, if a little wearing after the ninety-minute mark.
STOCKHOLM: 3 STARS
We've all heard the term Stockholm Syndrome. It refers to a hostage situation in which the captees come to sympathize or even identify with their captors. We've seen it in films like "Dog Day Afternoon," "V for Vendetta" and even "King Kong." But why is it called Stockholm Syndrome? Director Robert Budreau found out when he stumbled across "The Bank Drama" by Daniel Lang, a 1974 New Yorker article about a 1973 Swedish bank heist and hostage crisis that gave name to the phenomenon.
Ethan Hawke plays Lars Nystrom, a Swedish national raised in America. When he steps inside one of Sweden's main banks, the Kreditbanken, armed with a machine gun and some bad intentions, he's disguised, resembling Dennis Hopper circa "Easy Rider." Gun blazing he orders everyone out of the bank save for tellers Bianca Lind (Noomi Rapace) and Klara Mardh (Bea Santos).
His plan is simple. He will hold the two women hostage until his best friend, legendary bank robber Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong), is released from jail, delivered to him and the two friends, with hostages in tow are allowed to leave in a Mustang GT. They'll drive to a nearby dock, release Bianca and Klara, sail to France and never be seen again. If he doesn't get what he wants he tells police he will kill the hostages and shoot his way out of the bank.
What the police don't know is that Lars is all bluster, all talk and no walk. He's never shot anyone and isn't about to start now. Bianca, the more valuable of the hostages because she is a wife and a mom, senses Lars's soft heart and begins to feel for his plight, even though he is the architect of their dire situation.
"Stockholm" has a bit of a damp fuse. The elements are all in place for a terrific thriller but they never gel. Hawke is a hoot as the more nerve than brains instigator and Rapace captures the compassion and desperation necessary for us to believe she could help the man holding her for ransom. The rest of the cast, Strong included, take a backseat, personality and interest wise.
Budreau mixes and matches Bianca's rational perspective with Lars's irrationality in a true opposites attract not-quite-love story. They are the spark that keeps "Stockholm" interesting.
THE BEST OF ENEMIES: 2 STARS
At the end of "The Best of Enemies," a new historical drama starring Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell, we meet the real-life inspirations for the characters. Like so many based-on-a-true story films that have come before it, it feels as though a documentary about the actual folks would have been more enjoyable than the recreation.
Set in 1971 North Carolina, Henson plays Ann Atwater, an African-American civil rights activist. Her group, Operation Breakthrough, aids local people with legal advice, housing and a multitude of other social concerns. It's an uphill battle. Atwater often finds herself at odds with the openly racist town council. One member even turns his chair away when Atwater speaks. Providing unofficial support to the council is good-old-boy C.P. Ellis (Rockwell), president of the town's KKK chapter.
When the council rules to send Black kids back into an unsafe school the NAACP gets involved, forcing the council to bring the issue before a community charrette, essentially a ten day a meeting in which town folk on both sides of the problem come together to debate. Community organizer Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) chooses two unlikely co-chairs, Atwater and Ellis. Both are unsure if they can work together but the stakes are too high on either side for them to decline the invitation. "Riddick is about to hand the keys to school integration," says town official Carvie Oldham (Bruce McGill), "and you are going to lock the door."
After a tense start the sworn enemies find common ground. Despite her personal feelings for Ellis, Atwater responds to his family situation with empath and compassion. Ellis begins to acknowledge the frustration and helplessness of the people he has held in such little regard for his entire life.
"The Best of Enemies," comes with the best of intentions. Writer-director Robin Bissell details the lives of the two main characters but, it must be asked, How, in a movie about school integration, is the focus on Ellis? It seems tone deaf to present a story of integration in schools that features a climactic speech by a KKK president. Ellis's life is presented in detail. We learn about his family life, business and spend time inside several KKK gatherings, including one where he is named the region's Exulted Cyclops. Trouble is, we don't get the same info on Atwater. Henson does an admirable job of breathing life into the character but Atwater is more or less treated like a supporting player in her own story.
It's not to say "The Best of Enemies" doesn't have some interesting moments. Civil rights icon Howard Clement (Gilbert Glenn Brown) delivers a stirring speech detailing a parent's love for their child, adding "our kids have a whole different menu of pain to deal with." In smaller moments like that the film's message of bridge building and empathy ring loud and clear. It is just a shame that this historically significant tale suffers from a skewed POV and predictable plotting.
MIA AND THE WHITE LION: 2 ½ STARS
The family drama "Mia and the White Lion" breathes the same air as "Born Free," "The Black Stallion" and even "Bedtime for Bonzo." While it feels like many other humans-and-their-beloved-animal films is its political stance. Woven into the story is strong criticism of South African laws that allow lions to be sold and hunted in enclosed areas. "It's the way South Africa works," says Mia's father John (Langley Kirkwood). "It's the way it has always worked."
When we first meet Mia Owen (Daniah De Villiers) she is a young girl upset about leaving her life and friends in London behind when her family moves to South Africa. Alone, separated from all she knows, Mia makes an unusual friend, Charlie, a white lion cub born on her father's farm. Three years in Mia's parents worry about her safety. Charlie has grown and while the bond between he and his human is strong, for her own safety Mia's parents forbid her to see her best friend. When it appears Mia's father will sell Charlie to hunters to protect his daughter the plucky teen steps up to save her leonine buddy.
Like the Oscar winning "Boyhood," director Gilles de Maistre's "Mia and the White Lion" was shot over the course of several years. That allowed De Villiers to form a relationship with Charlie in real life as well as convincingly grow up on screen. The process makes for some startling, realistic moments between Charlie and his lion whispering friend. Unfortunately, their intimacy is the only really surprising thing about the movie. Good messaging about animal welfare aside, "Mia and the White Lion" relies a little too heavily on predictable, family film tropes and cardboard characters to maintain interest.