Writer-director artfully captures ‘Missing Link’

A “Missing Link” has been found — in cinematic form, that is — and for writer-director Chris Butler, the discovery has been years in the making. But it’s not like Butler has been sitting around, biding his time since his last feature film as a writer-director, ” ParaNorman ,” in 2012.

That’s because ” ParaNorman ,” as well as “Missing Link” are stop-motion animated films from the acclaimed studio LAIKA , based in Portland, Oregon, where the action is meticulously assembled frame by frame as Butler and his fellow animators magically bring inanimate objects to life on the big screen.

The years LAIKA has been producing its stop-motion features have paid off handsomely, though, since all four of the studio’s offerings since 2009 — ” Coraline ,” ” ParaNorman ,” “The Boxtrolls ” and ” Kubo and the Two Strings” — have been awarded with best animated feature Oscar nominations.

“They take a long time to do, and ‘Missing Link’ was probably our longest production — five years, pretty much, from beginning to end,” Butler said. ” When ‘ ParaNorman ‘ was finishing, ‘Missing Link’ already existed in some form, so I gave what I had at the time to ( LAIKA CEO, animator and director) Travis Knight, and we agreed that it should be my next project. As I started to develop it, I also got involved with ‘ Kubo ‘ and did a couple of rewrites of the script, so for a time, I was doing half a week on ‘ Kubo ‘ and half a week on ‘Missing Link.’ After that, while ‘ Kubo ‘ was shooting, I was in pre-production on this. ”

Opening in theaters nationwide Friday, “Missing Link” stars Hugh Jackman as the voice of Sir Lionel Frost, an adventurous monster hunter who, in a bid to fit in with upper-class society, sets out to prove the existence of the fabled Sasquatch in the Pacific Northwest. Much to his surprise, he locates the 8-foot-tall creature quite easily, and to his bemusement, Lionel discovers the furry behemoth can read, write and speak, too.

Seeking Lionel’s help, all this missing link (Zach Galifianakis ) hopes for is to find his equally legendary cousins, the Yeti, in the Himalayas in what was thought-to-be the fantasy land of Shangri La — simply because he’s lonely and wants to be around others of his kind. The trip across the globe won’t be easy, though, since a bounty has been put out on Lionel and his new Sasquatch friend, who are accompanied by Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana ), the spunky widow of Lionel’s late partner.

With an “Indiana Jones”-type of adventure narrative (accompanied by loads of comedy) and majestic sets throughout the film, there’s no question that “Missing Link” is LAIKA’s largest production in scale to date. It’s a film meant to be seen on the big screen, and one that Butler hopes isn’t just a movie to viewers of all ages but an experience.

“When we’re making these features, we’re thinking of them as proper movies,” Butler said. ” I’ve said many times, but the idea that animation is just some babysitting device to plop a child in front of while you go off and do other things … that idea doesn’t work for me. What I want is to have a cinematic experience. We’re going to create an experience that families can go to together, enjoy together, laugh together and talk about. That’s important to me. ”

” Missing Link ” is a PG film both kids and adults can enjoy in equal measure, one through which Butler said he wants to create the same sense of wonder that he experienced when he was growing up.

“I loved animation as a kid — it inspired me and moved me and set a course for the rest of my life,” Butler recalled. ” Today, when I see or talk to kids or young students who say that ‘ ParaNorman ‘ or ‘ Coraline ‘ or another movie that I was involved in has changed the course of their life, that’s important to me. That’s what makes it worthwhile. The work is never a cartoon. It’s much more than that. ”

Appropriately, Butler creates three-dimensional characters to embody the puppets his animators are bringing to life, and with that, he’s thrilled that among the cast this time is Jackman . The actor, of course, rose to prominence in the “X-Men” movies as Wolverine; but in the midst of making those superhero adventures, he’s managed to expand his palette as a song and dance man on the Broadway stage, as well as in the smash movie musicals “Les Miserables” and “The Greatest Showman.”

Because of the actor’s willingness to play all sorts of different characters, Butler said bringing Jackman into the fold on ” Missing Link ” was an easy decision.

” The biggest thing he brought to the film, and it wasn’t really a surprise, but it was why I hired him, was the fact that Sir Lionel’s character is flawed. He’s self-centered and arrogant, but he becomes a much better character on his journey through the movie, ” Butler said. ” That’s why Hugh Jackman was vital to me. He’s so effortlessly charming that even when he’s doing bad things, you kind of like him. I knew I needed someone like that to play this character because you need to be on his side from the first step of his journey all the way through to the end. ”