Missing Link (2019)

Laika has already earned a lifetime pass with their spooky stop-motion gems Coraline, ParaNorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings, but it’s not going to be much of a lifetime if the animation studio doesn’t start pulling in more money. As beloved as those titles are among movie nerds and very specific budding-horror-fan children, none have really broken through to genuine box office success. The studio has essentially depended on the money its CEO Travis Knight has inherited from his Nike co-founder father Phil Knight, who is technically Laika’s owner. That sneaker money won’t keep them afloat forever, and Laika is desperate for a hit to become a self-sustaining enterprise. That might explain why they stepped slightly outside their usual spooky, Halloween-flavored children’s media realm to produce a cutesy comedy about a goofball yeti. The gamble did not work in a financial sense, but the resulting movie was still about as solid as you’d expect from the studio – who are maybe too high-brow & visually polished for their own good.

I’m not sure what movie greenlighting algorithm has prompted animation studios to believe that yetis are what children are salivating to see on the big screen at the moment, but it was a decision that paid off nicely for DreamWorks & Universal – who recently had sizeable hits with the CG-animated shrugs Smallfoot & Abominable, respectively. Laika, of course, was the only studio of the trio to outright flop in this endeavor, doubling their usual production budget on what appeared to be a surefire hit and only earning 1/5th of it back at the box office. Their mistake was being the one studio who actually gave a shit about animation as an artform – pushing their usual combination of tactile stop-motion wizardry & CGI-smoothed touchups to create a one-of-a-kind globetrotting adventure. Casting overgrown man-child Zach Galifianakis as a buffoonish sasquatch who takes figures of speech as literally as Amelia Bedelia was their only attempt to bridge the gap to what most modern animation studios do in their globally-exported box office hits – a real “Zendaya is Meechee” kind of decision. It wasn’t enough.

Thematically, Missing Link makes for a lighthearted companion piece to the recent stop-motion arthouse bummer This Magnificent Cake!. Both films use traditional slapstick humor to satirize the absurdity of historical colonialism, although Missing Link’s approach to the material is much sillier than it is traumatizing. Hugh Jackman voices a self-proclaimed “famous” monster hunter (the one nod to the studio’s typical horror bent) who attempts to earn the respect of legitimate big-game hunters by capturing creatures like The Loch Ness Monster and, yes, Bigfoot. Galifianakis voices that living Bigfoot specimen, a sweetly non-confrontational beast who longs to find more creatures of his own kind so he can stop living as an ostracized misfit. The pair team up to help each other’s causes. The yeti is a crude New World goofball searching for purpose & a sense of Home in his Old World ancestry, while the monster hunter learns just how harmful his self-serving, globetrotting colonialism is to everyone he touches. The mistake the movie made was in having themes or a point of view at all. It probably would have made much more money if they had just animated Galifianakis singing Meghan Trainor karaoke or some other such horseshit.

Missing Link is very cute in its slapstick humor, and often stunning in its visual artistry. It’s about on par with The Boxtrolls all told, which is to say it’s mediocre by Laika standards but still on a level far above most modern children’s cinema. It sucks to have to focus so much on the film’s financial failure in appraising its worth as art, but that failure is very much a part of its story. This is Laika reaching out as far as possible from their niche spooky-stop-motion corner of children’s media to welcome in a wide audience, and the most they got for the effort was a token Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature (which I fear will just automatically defer to whatever microwaved Disney or Pixar sequel it’s up against this Sunday). It’s not their strongest work, but it manages to be their most accessible while still maintaining a unique, technically marvelous visual style and an admirably pointed worldview. I wish it had been enough of a smash success to fund more weirdo, spooky outliers like Coraline or Kubo, but instead I’m left worrying that their sneaker money is going to dry up any day now.

-Brandon Ledet

Zama (2018)

In the opening sequence of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, the titular government goon stands on a South American beach, longingly staring at the open water. His anguish in that thousand-yard-stare is twofold: a lonely desire to reconnect with his wife & children in his Spaniard home country and, more prominently, a soul-crushing boredom. All around him indigenous people are living their normal lives: sunbathing, chatting, playing in the sand with loved ones. Meanwhile, his own life is locked in a permanent stasis, as if his assigned post as a magistrate for the Spanish crown were a prison sentence, not an honor. It’s an excruciating fate, but he deserves worse.

Diego de Zama’s fate of being permanently stuck in a foreign land he finds to be a soul-crushing bore is a purely existential kind of torment. He pleads to higher-ups in the Spanish government from every possible angle, including letters to the Crown, to release him from this hellish Limbo, to no avail. If Zama were a moralistic tale about the evils of 17th Century colonialism, this professional prison where its wicked lead awaits a transfer that’s never to come might play like a just, torturous punishment for the sins of Spanish occupation he’s in charge of administering in Paraguay. Instead, the film plays the torture as a more surreal, existential plight; his punishment is made all the harsher & more satisfying because it is entirely meaningless and void of intent.

The bored, anguished stasis of Zama pushes beyond real-world logic to reach the surreal, philosophical existentialism of works like The Exterminating Angel & Waiting for Godot. The film’s mocking of civility is especially Buñuelian, as Diego de Zama & his fellow in-Limbo cohorts foolishly attempt to maintain their homeland nobility despite the indignity of their posts. Their white legislative wigs & vibrantly dyed fabrics look absolutely absurd in the Natural environments they’re tasked to occupy & govern. The juxtaposition of their heartless brutality & mannered civility is often allowed to clash for dark humor, as in scenes where the Spanish government goons enslave or beat locals and then politely kiss each other on the cheek according to custom. Just as often as it’s bleakly humorous, however, Zama allows the out-of-place quality of its damned protagonist to hang in the air for eerie surreality.

I won’t pretend that I fully understood the themes or drama of Zama beyond its existential anguish & mockery of civility, but I was often struck by the potency of its imagery anyway. Lamas, fish scales, naked children, and skin dyed red & blue disorient the eye with continual surprise, despite the contained, reality-bound premise. Diego de Zama is tasked with capturing a local rapist/murderer and bringing him to justice. This seems like a straightforward enough task, but it’s somehow played to be as pointlessly absurd as any of his other assigned duties. His distanced relationship with his family and his treatment of local black bodies as tools & furniture seem similarly ripe for narrative propulsion but are left to rot in discomfort along with the protagonist. Mostly, Zama functions as an eerie nightmare of Natural images, like a costume drama version of Icaros: A Vision. There are certainly historical & thematic elements of the film that sailed miles over my head, but being perplexed by a well-crafted image is its own kind of pleasure.

-Brandon Ledet