While the animation big hitters like Pixar and Illumination continue to duke it out for CGI supremacy, Laika Animation Studios has quietly but consistently been burning a small flame for stop-motion. This is the fifth film from America’s answer to Aardman, and once again they have proven themselves masters of their painstaking claymation craft, with ambitions that are both modest and mighty.
The same versatility that took the Oregon-based company from horror (Coraline) to Asian mysticism (Kubo & The Two Strings) to trolls in boxes (Boxtrolls) now brings their attention to Victorian England, for a ripping yarn adventure across the seas and skies. Our dashing hero here is the rosy-beaked Sir Lionel Frost (voiced with rakish vigour by Jackman), a daring explorer desperate to earn the international renown and respect he so richly believes he deserves. In particular, Frost hopes to earn the validation — and membership — of a pompous and highly exclusive London institution, headed by a hissable bad guy (Stephen Fry, on full Melchett mode).
A stunningly-staged globetrotting journey with visual scale and dynamism.
Desperate to leave his mark on the world, Frost journeys to the Pacific Northwest, to find the legendary Bigfoot, and perhaps prove the evolutionary missing link that has eluded scientists. As it turns out, ‘Mr Link’ (or as he’s later called, for reasons explained in gloriously Pythonesque terms, ‘Susan’) turns out to be a very chipper mythical beast. With superb voice work from Galifianakis, he’s a gentle giant just looking for a home — and like a combination of Spock and Drax the Destroyer, he’s hilariously literal-minded.
So off they set, joined by the spiky if slightly underwritten map-bearer Adelina Fortnight (Saldana), for a stunningly-staged globetrotting journey in search of the mysterious Yeti of the Nepalese mountains. It’s a story of such visual scale and dynamism — over 100 sets were built for the film — that you sense Laika’s animation team are often deliberately choosing the path of most resistance. One key sequence involves a footchase on a listing ship during a stormy sea crossing, its corridors barreling, Inception-style. During scenes like this, stop to consider that what are you watching is actually just plasticine models being incrementally nudged, and enjoy having your mind boggled.
While technically and artistically uninhibited, it is, admittedly, narratively more low key. Perhaps that’s deliberate, a counterbalance to the visual excitement. The story feels simple, even a little slight: the real adventure was inside them all along! But when you have such strong, disarming character work; such clever, subtle nods to the crimes of colonialism and old world conservatism; and such gorgeous art direction, the kind that swells the heart and nourishes the soul; you realise that Laika are a true treasure. Here’s hoping that flame is burning for some time to come.