FilmSpace: Missing Link; Shazam!

Film critic Calum Cooper examines two of the week’s big releases; the latest triumph from the animation company Laika, and the refreshingly entertaining new addition to the DC Extended Universe.

Missing Link – ★★★★☆

Laika’s fifth feature, Missing Link, is delightful, exciting, and extremely funny. It’s family entertainment with wise messages to share, and a rollercoaster of an adventure to take us on. I’ve been a huge fan of this animation company since the release of the brilliantly creepy Coraline a decade ago (if you haven’t seen that film, why?). With four more films now under their belt, three of which have been fantastic, I genuinely believe Laika is to stop motion what Studio Ghibli is to anime.

Set in Victorian London, we meet an eccentric adventurer, Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman being as charming as ever). Through a wild prologue and the subsequent following scenes, we learn that he desires to prove the existence of a mythical creature so that he can join a group of pioneers led by the pompous Lord Piggot-Dunceby (a scene-chewing Stephen Fry). He ventures to the Pacific Northwest where he comes across a mythical creature, a Bigfoot that can speak (Zach Galifianakis).

This Bigfoot goes by the name Lionel bestows on him, Mr Link, in reference to Lionel’s theory that Bigfoot’s kind is the missing evolutionary link between human and ape. Mr. Link is the last of his kind, but wishes to travel to the Himalayas as he believes his Yeti cousins will take him in. Lionel agrees to take him, as long as he can use Mr. Link’s existence to bring himself fame and glory. On their journey they pair up with another adventurer, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana) and come cross all sorts of colourful characters, set pieces, and plot revelations, resulting in thrills, laughs, and excitement in abundance.

It’s a strange premise for a film, but it’s one that lends itself to its animated form marvellously. In an interview with Simon Mayo, the film’s writer and director Chris Butler commented on how he essentially wanted to make a stop motion Indiana Jones, with bits of Sherlock Holmes and Around the World in 80 Days in there. It’s an ambitious amalgamation, but the crew’s utilisation of 110 gorgeously built and vibrantly coloured sets, made to span 65 unique locations across the globe, from America to London to the Himalayas, fully realise that vision. Each set is as stunningly crafted as the next, evoking both tremendous imagination and all the exhilaration of an epic or an adventure film, like those of Indiana Jones.

But in many more ways the film builds its own sturdy sense of identity. It does this through its characters and its messages. Lionel Frost is one of those characters that fits into the lovable bastard category. He’s quite the morally grey character, being in it mostly for himself. He’s not above throwing people under the bus or putting his own needs ahead of others. However, he’s never unlikeable for you can feel and identify where his sense of passion comes from, as well as the means he’ll go through to get what he yearns for. The opening scenes portray this immaculately through tight writing and clever details. The journey is as much a learning experience about himself, as well as the mythical Mr. Link.

Humongous scope alongside mesmerising sets, and a stylish harnessing of good old fashioned stop motion techniques allows us to feel the vastness of Butler’s ambitions and the enormity of the story.

Placing him opposite other equally enjoyable characters only adds to Lionel’s dastardly charisma. Adelina Fortnight is a fantastic name for an adventurer, but her free spirit allows her to be both warmly empathetic and howling crazy depending on the scene. She’s a lot of fun to be around, as is the innocent charm of Mr. Link himself. He’s an effective platform for displaying the film’s wondrous sense of scale, as he is seeing all these incredible landmarks and sets around the world for the first as we are. We identify with his wish to belong, as it runs parallel to Lionel’s own wish to belong, and as the journey morphs from one of belonging to one of self-respect and integrity, we find ourselves immersed as we fully believe in the characters that occupy the story and their narrative arcs.

As I said though, the comedy is arguably the film’s strongest aspect. I’ve found previous Laika films funny (even Coraline has its humorous moments in between the dread and spooks), but this had me in stitches numerous times. Like the best comedies, it spawns from the characters’ interactions with one another, and how their personalities clash. Whether that’s the rocky history between Lionel and Adelina influencing their actions toward each other and the ultimate goal, or Mr. Link misunderstanding sayings and direction by taking everything literally, there’s dozens of laugh out loud moments. The diversity of the comedy, from slapstick to sarcasm to confusion, combined with the layered, investable characters make for barely a quiet moment. Even the villain’s pomposity is done in such an over the top manner that it’s impossible not to at least chuckle.

Yet the film is first and foremost an adventure film, and it brings the excitement in crate loads. Humongous scope alongside mesmerising sets, and a stylish harnessing of good old fashioned stop motion techniques (with admittedly has a bit more usage of CGI than Laika’s earlier films) allows us to feel the vastness of Butler’s ambitions and the enormity of the story. From a ship battling stormy waves to a classic western bar fight, there are plenty of thrilling moments. But easily the best sequence is near the end of the film. Without going into spoilers, it involves a bridge of ice, and the way the sequence is drawn out, edited, and shot feels like a vice grip. The tension digs its claws into you and refuses to let go. If you were to make a case for this being the greatest sequence shot by Laika thus far, it would be hard to argue against.

Some of the models of the human characters may look a little off to some viewers, but I don’t think this should distract from what a tremendous amount of fun Missing Link. Filled with enjoyable characters, an ambitious sense of grandness and a plethora of jokes and thrills, it’s great viewing for families of all ages. It’s yet another home run from Laika, and I am more stoked than ever to see what comes next.

Shazam! – ★★★☆☆

The DC Extended Universe, DC’s answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is quite the rocky collection in my opinion. Aquaman was fun, and Wonder Woman was terrific, but the rest of them left much to be desired. Justice League was meh, Suicide Squad and Man of Steel were rubbish, and Batman v Superman was mountainous rubbish set on fire. However, the films that worked did so because they brought on unique directors with singular visions. James Wan and Patty Jenkins’ differing styles brought much needed flavour into their respective films, as opposed to Zach Snyder’s dreary and pretentious cases of self-seriousness. Shazam! follows suit, as its director is David F. Sandberg, a talented new filmmaker best known for horror films like Wan. The results are nothing special, but they’re nonetheless fun and pleasantly entertaining.

As far as origin stories go, Shazam! is a refreshingly odd one. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a troubled orphan who is placed in a new foster home, sharing a room with superhero enthusiast Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer). One day, after getting into a fight to protect Freddy, he is transported to a magical realm where an old wizard grants him superpowers. All he has to do is yell “Shazam” and he is morphed into a caped Zachery Levi who’s bulletproof, superfast, and can shoot lightning out his fingers. However, mentally speaking, he is still very much a teenager, and so when a villain with similar powers comes along (Mark Strong), Billy learns he must grow up quickly. You know the drill – great power comes great responsibility.

What makes this film stand out among the lesser DCEU movies is the level of awareness it has about itself. Prior to the DCEU we had a DC film called The Dark Knight. Like everyone else, I really loved it, but what made it stand out was how serious it was in tone. It played out more like a crime drama than a standard superhero film, giving it a sturdy sense of identity among the superhero collection. However, the DCEU learned the wrong lessons from that film, assuming that serious and dark automatically meant good. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman suffered greatly from this misunderstanding. Shazam! on the other hand goes for a much more upbeat and energetic tone, and its likeably daft premise and central superhero means that this chosen tone meshes with the narrative in colourful ways.

It strangely reminded me of a 2012 film called Chronicle. Unlike the majority of film fans, I really didn’t like Chronicle. But one of the things I did like about it was how well it captured teenagers suddenly obtaining powers, and how they would exploit those powers for immaturity and personal gain. Shazam! does the same thing in even better fashion, as it takes us through both the initial exploitation and the growing maturity that must inevitably follow from this.

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As a result, we get refreshingly well-realised characters occupying a film that skilfully juggles plenty of laughs and a childish giddiness to itself alongside genuine drama. Angel and Levi are both great and embodying the same mind-set, sharing equally amiable chemistry with Grazer, whether they’re sorting out serious emotional problems or having fun with these new powers. Even Mark Strong’s villain I thought was pretty solid. I say that as the DCEU villains haven’t been especially good thus far, but Strong’s villain has a strong backstory and identifiable motivation. He could even be read as a consequence on the effects of toxic masculinity, but maybe I’m just reading too deeply into it.

Pairing up with these characters with a diverse sense of humour, committed performances, engaging action scenes, and some pretty cool sets (even if they are hindered by dark lighting at times), and we get a film that, unlike previous entries to the DCEU bar Wonder Woman and Aquaman, knows precisely what it is and is unashamed to indulge in its own cartoonish creativity and ambiance. Personally I think we have Sandberg’s jovial direction to thank for this. But even if it wasn’t entirely down to him, it’s just good to see ambitious new filmmakers doing well.

That’s not to say the film works all the time though. The CGI really blows at the worst moments, and the story does sadly slip back into narrative clichés and contrivances, even if, with context, they make a bit more sense than the average film. Also, while most of the jokes at the very least warrant chuckles, you do get some comedic moments, and occasionally some dramatic moments, that seem a little awkwardly fitted within the narrative.

But when you examine the film as a whole, it really is just a lot of fun. The actors are great, the plot and tone are joyously erratic, and when it does have to get serious, it’s never too much and almost always feels earned. Exciting, goofy, and delicate in its handling of family messages, it’s a breath of fresh air among recent DC films. If the DCEU keeps up its decision of giving each film unique directors, we may see it totally reformed soon enough, and for the better if you ask me.

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