Nike mogul Phil Knight’s Oregon-based animation venture, Laika Studios, has earned quite a bit of attention over the last several years for its striking stop-motion showcases. Films such as “Coraline” and “Kubo and the Two Strings” have recalled the work done by Aardman, the outfit behind “Wallace & Gromit,” in the way they’ve lent continued relevance to their old-school, labor-intensive art.
The parallels feel even more pronounced in Laika’s latest, “Missing Link.” The British-accented adventure casts Hugh Jackman as a Victorian gentleman explorer and Zach Galifianakis as the anthropological discovery, whose friendship ends up being the real find.
Writer-director Chris Butler (Laika’s “ParaNorman”) sets the tweedy tone with an opening shot of Jackman’s finicky Sir Lionel Frost sipping tea while being ferried to the middle of Loch Ness. It’s a dryly amusing image, one that signals the handsome film’s tendency to go for subtle laughs before extra-broad ones — mixed news for grown-ups, whose viewing time could be split between chuckling and fidget control. Depends, we suppose, on how in tune your kids are with Galifianakis’s comedic literal-mindedness.
What will it take for intrepid Lionel to finally win admission into the fusty old elitists’ club (Stephen Fry, etc.) that’s forever disparaging his Darwinian “monster hunting”? A letter summoning him to the American frontier for proof of the legendary Sasquatch (Galifianakis) seems like his ticket to legitimacy and respect.
But while Lionel braces for an encounter that’s hairy in both senses, his quarry turns out to be a big sweetheart — or lonelyheart, really, as the solitary creature asks for help in finding his mythical cousins, the yetis. (He also asks to be called Susan, in a joke that’s no less entertaining for inadvertently echoing one from “Monsters vs. Aliens.”)
The already scenically rendered action continues around the globe to the Indian subcontinent. Joining the trek are Lionel’s spirited old flame, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), and his gunslingin’ nemesis, Stenk (Timothy Olyphant). Stick around for the end credits to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the heroes’ elephant ride across India. The animators particularly strive to offer a fresh take on their final destination, from the yetis’ theme-reinforcing snootiness to the diverting casting of Emma Thompson as tribal elder.
One quibble: For such a legendarily elusive spot, the snowmen’s Himalayan hideaway seems awfully well trodden these days. If you thought the similarity between, say, “Coco” and “The Book of Life” was a case of animators not looking resourcefully enough for inspiration, how about the trifecta of “Smallfoot,” “Missing Link,” and DreamWorks’s upcoming “Abominable”?
Still, what’s a bit of narrative familiarity next to the inherent fun of watching stop-motion? As cinematic treats go, the craft remains as rare as any of Sir Lionel’s finds.
Written and directed by Chris Butler. Starring Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana, Timothy Olyphant. Boston theaters, suburbs. 95 minutes. PG (action/peril, some mild rude humor).Tom Russo can be reached at email@example.com.