At risk of massively downplaying the many hours of labour-intensive stopmotion required in its production, Missing Link feels like animation upstarts Laika goofing off a little. This is a far lighter proposition than those films (2009's Coraline, 2012's ParaNorman and 2014's The Boxtrolls) with which this studio first established itself as Pixar's closest rivals in terms of quality; after the commercial underperformance of 2016's beautiful, doomed Kubo and the Two Strings - doomed because it dared to tell a story that required attention, rather than just whizzing its characters around the screen for ninety minutes - it has the air of a winding down, if not yet a complete capitulation. Its tale of plucky English explorer Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman) and his efforts to prove the existence of the Bigfoot carries Laika into territory previously occupied by those blithely larky Aardman fellows: it's an odd-couple comedy at plasticine base, dependent on the sasquatch in question being a chatty Cathy named Susan (and voiced, or rather yammered, by The Hangover's Zack Galifianakis) who actively wants to be discovered and brought in from the wilds.
Watching Kubo, one was aware of its writer-director Travis Knight having to take great care, whether around the fragile objects and emotions at the film's centre, or the wider issue of cultural appropriation. Missing Link, conceived as robust entertainment, opens with a gentleman's bet being made in one of those stuffy Pall Mall clubs familiar from Around the World in Eighty Days, proceeds through a frontier bar brawl, entails Frost dragging up as a nun at one point, and ends with the blowing of a loud raspberry. The delicacies that have long been a Laika signature are still there, but they've been geared towards comedy above all else: the barkeep in that rather fractious establishment has had his knuckles tattooed with the legend "CASH ONLY". There's a degree of playing safe that follows from that - writer-director Chris Butler has made an American urban legend the basis of a Bing-and-Bob Road movie - alongside elements that strike the eye and ear as somehow familiar, whether as the result of an overcrowded animation market (Susan's desire to meet his Yeti brethren recalls last year's equally fun Smallfoot) or rote voice casting (Zoe Saldana as the kind of spitfire adventuress Salma Hayek voiced in Aardman's The Pirates!). The end credit number is a very Randy Newmanesque thing burbling on about having "a friend like you".
Those early Laika fables may have been parables about the dangers of conformity in part because they were the work of creatives fearful they'd end up doing the same work as everybody else; animators who sensed that, in this increasingly crowded field, it would get harder and harder to generate truly original work, and thereby avoid resting on any laurels. (Pixar's big 2019 project, lest we forget, is Toy Story 4.) There's still wit in this screenplay, thankfully - Susan, caught in his feelings, confesses he has something inside him "like gas, but sadder" - and art evident in the design. This road carries Sir Lionel and Susan (even the names are funny) from the blue-green forests of Washington, and over an ocean in the midst of one almighty squall, to the Himalayas, where we are greeted by some light editorial on communities who try to keep outsiders at bay (as we were in Smallfoot) and a genuinely clever and suspenseful setpiece on and around an ice bridge linking two worlds. Even when they're just consolidating their achievements, Laika are still pushing themselves and putting their characters out there: perhaps the game has now changed, but one hopes the half-term crowd resists Wonder Park's superficial lures and tags along with Lionel and Susan instead.
Missing Link is now playing in cinemas nationwide.