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

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

I don’t know if I can fully justify enjoying The Lego Batman Movie‘s tongue in cheek meta-commentary on the grim & gritty world of DC comic book adaptations while calling the same referential style of humor lazy & unfunny in Deadpool. It might just be that the jokes in Lego Batman were better written. It might be that the film’s visual craft better carried its dull stretches where the jokes weren’t landing. It might even be that DC is a target that really needs to be parodied in an irreverent, aggressively silly way (considering the gloomy hell pit it’s been mired in since Nolan & Snyder have shaped its modern image), while Deadpool‘s Marvel digs felt more inconsequential. No matter the reason, I felt like somewhat of a hypocrite laughing throughout The Lego Batman Movie for the same exact reasons I shuddered throughout Deadpool. I could try to make an argument that this animated triviality was more sincere or emotionally genuine that that accursed Ryan Reynolds vehicle, but I’ll always be saddled with the feeling of being made a hypocrite by my own sense of taste in this scenario.

One thing I can be certain of in my enjoyment of The Lego Batman Movie is that Will Arnett is brilliantly cast as the titular character; he’s probably the most inspired Batman casting since I first imagined Nic Cage in the role in my own head. Arnett’s naturally gruff speaking voice & leftover Gob Bluth hubris are perfect for the Batman/Bruce Wayne dichotomy. The 2014 Lego Movie was an adorable, infectiously energized pop culture mashup that allowed for all kinds of recognizable characters to share a single screen: C-3PO, Abraham Lincoln, Wonder Woman, Shakespeare, etc. Only Arnett’s Batman stood out enough to suggest he could justify his own spin-off, though. As a delivery on that promise, this quasi-sequel does a great job of both delivering more of the same & deepening the self-obsessed gloomy rich boy assholery that defines Arnett’s Batman as a character. He still shares the screen with an impossible array of crossover characters & finds fresh ways to take the wind out of Batman’s egomaniacal sails. We get to see much more of the loneliness, hurt, and grief that makes him such a selfish prick to begin with, however. The movie even opens that world to us without having to indulge in yet another retelling of the origin story sparked by his parent’s death (a restraint Snyder didn’t show in Dawn of Justice, unfortunately). Arnett’s Lego form is such a pure embodiment of Batman that in these reflective scenes of brooding over the past in his mansion & cave, he’s still wearing the costume & cowl. The movie makes his Bruce Wayne persona the disguise & Batman the natural default, which is both amusing & oddly insightful.

To make room for these introspective, parodic dives into Batman’s character, The Lego Batman Movie does little in the way of plot innovation. Like an episode of the 1960s Batman television series or the general ethos or Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, the game plan in this lego-ized version of a Batman plot is to just flood the screen with villains for the Caped Crusader to thwart. The Joker, Two-Face, The Riddler, Catwoman, etc. are joined by non-Batman villains like Sauron, Gremlins, Kong, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Dracula to provide a long line of in-the-moment obstacles for Batman to clear on his path to the end credits. Outside a couple well-casted performances (Jenny Slate as Harley Quinn, Zach Galifianakis as The Joker, etc.) there really isn’t much to hold onto in these external conflicts. Rather, it’s the emotional conflicts of Batman’s interpersonal relationships with friends & family (Alfred, Robin, Batgirl, himself) that drive to story. The Lego Batman Movie boasts fairly simplistic messages about learning to not be selfish & the value of asking for help that contrast with Batman’s self-absorbed rich boy nature as a vigilante who “karate chops poor people in a Halloween costume,” but that’s more than enough of a narrative structure to support the film’s true concern: self-referential goofs & gags.

The beautiful thing about this movie’s Batman nerdery is that it mostly focuses on Batman’s onscreen adaptations, as opposed to his life in comic books. There’s an inclusiveness to that kind of reference-based humor that I found constantly rewarding. From the opening heist sequence involving an “unnecessarily complicated bomb” that recalls The Dark Knight to the off-handed callback line, “You wanna get nuts?,” every inch of the script is crawling with heartfelt appreciation for Batman’s life in movies. References to less widely-loved properties like the (criminally undervalued) 1960s Batman: The Movie and even the 1940s serials are just as plentiful & thoughtful as the nods to Batman & Nolan. Much like The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie does its best to capture the feeling of kids playing with toys on the living room floor, despite its nature as a corporate-sanctioned, CG-animated product deliberately designed to sell merchandise. Since I grew up a huge mark for Batman media (mostly thanks to Burton & The Animated Series), this particular version of smashing toys together actually resonated with my own memories of childhood playtime. That shared nerdery over Batman‘s cinematic past is likely a significant factor is why this indulgence in referential, tangential meta-humor worked so well for me while the same tactics in Deadpool left me absolutely cold.

The Lego Batman Movie is overlong for its paper thin plot & exhausting, gag-a-second style of post-ZAZ parody humor. It’s impressive how much of it works before that exhaustion sets in, however. I’m usually not at all a sucker for CG animation, but this Lego style has a cool, tactile stop-motion flavor to it that I really appreciate. The film’s knowledgeable assessment of Batman as a character can be impressive too, from commentary on his fear of familial love & his longterm relationships with supervillians to more shallow single-moment parodies where he literally shoots children in the face with merchandise or fights forgotten villains like Egghead & The Condiment King. The inspired casting of Arnett as Batman (and the alternate, improved universe where Channing Tatum plays Superman) is enough to carry the movie on its own, but it’s still endearing to see so much care & attention to detail poured into a property that appears to be all blatant commercialism from the surface. Maybe that intense fandom & craft is what’s missing for me in the meta sleaze of Deadpool, but, again, I’m really just grasping at straws trying to figure out why one of these movies worked for me while the other one didn’t. It’s a personal inconsistency that’s going to drive me mad until I can put a finer point on it.

-Brandon Ledet

Masterminds (2016)

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It’s difficult to sell the potential enjoyment of a Jared Hess film to the disinterested, because the director’s work can be so aggressively quirky-for-its-own-sake & juvenile. Hess’s latest film, Masterminds, has been the most difficult sell of the director’s career yet, possibly in a very literal sense. His debut, Napoleon Dynamite, was a dirt cheap indie comedy that somehow stumbled into the kind of success that scores you decades-long merch sales in roadside truck stops & shopping mall novelty shops, despite being the director’s least interesting work to date. Titles like Nacho Libre, Don Verdean, and (my personal favorite) Gentlemen Broncos have mostly flown under the radar since, as have the projects of Hess’s wife & creative partner Jerusha. Not one of these examples has suffered the financial & distributive roadblocks of Masterminds, though. A harmless madcap bank heist comedy starring Zach Galifianakis & three Ghostbusters (Jones, Wiig, and McKinnon), Masterminds has struggled for at least two years to see the light of day. The film itself is very amusing to those already onboard with Hess’s lost-in-time awkwardness schtick, but also relatively unexceptional within the larger scope of his career. The fact that something so straightforward from Hess has taken this long to overcome its distribution setbacks (which included the financial collapse of Relativity Media), only to flop on its long-awaited opening weekend does not bode well for the director’s career at large. He can’t continue making these comfortable, mid-budget, non-flashy comedies and expect to survive in the current Hollywood climate, no matter how much I (and apparently very few others) happen to find them amusing. Not without bringing his content straight to VOD, at least.

I could make some sort of grand claim about how the virtue of honesty is what ties together the heart of Hess’s narratives or that his films are interesting in their application of a Wes Anderson visual craft to a gross-out Farrelly Brother aesthetic, but I’m not sure that’s what makes them work as comedies. What Hess brings to the table, besides the general quease of Sears family photo shoots, is the visual punchline. In Masterminds, the machinations of Zach Galifianakis’s hapless security guard being coerced into robbing a bank by his milquetoast seductress, Kristen Wiig, or her sleaze ball cohort, Owen Wilson, aren’t nearly as amusing as just the mere look of him. The Prince Valiant haircut, the full beard, the tight novelty t-shirts: Zach Galifianakis is the fashion version of a slapstick pratfall. Certainly, there are funny turns of phrase in the film (mostly delivered by Jason Sudeikis’s cold-as-ice contract killer) but no dialogue in the film made me laugh nearly as hard as just the distinctly awkward visual tableau Hess crafted with his vanity-free players. In many ways Kate McKinnon was perfect casting for this comedy style, as it’s the criticism she most often receives from her work in SNL. She doesn’t deliver jokes so much as that she is the joke, striking such a specifically strange, crazy-eyed image that no verbal play is needed to sell the humor. This might not be enough for some folks, but just the mere sight of her posing for wedding photos with Zach Galifianakis to an Enya song is personally all I need to guffaw.

The humor of Masterminds is, in the film’s own words, “dumber than a suitcase full of buttholes.” The “based on a real story” failed bank heist plot is amusing, but indistinct. Stray lines about a “fart transplant” or why boobs don’t bleed milk are certainly funny & Jason Sudeikis’s sociopathic assassin is hilariously out of place in this world of naïve dummies, but the film isn’t particularly memorable for any verbal or narrative touches. It’s Hess’s deft with the comedic image, whether McKinnon posing in a hideous wedding dress or Galifianakis chowing down on a goo-filled tarantula, that makes Masterminds a weird, dumb delight. It’s doubtful that Hess can continue to get away with constructing those awkward tableaus in perpetuity, given the lukewarm reception each of his films have received since his surprise hit debut (and his worst film to date, in my opinion), but for now I’m enjoying the weirdly wonderful results. Anyone else should be able to tell at a quick glance if they’re also going to be onboard, considering the visual nature of the director’s humor.

-Brandon Ledet