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MISSING LINK leaps onto year's best-of list

“Missing Link” is the first film I’ve seen this year that made me want to start my best-of list.

This animated gem from the reliable Laika studio (“Coraline,” “Kubo and the Two Strings”) can be overly silly, and its ending pushes too hard; yet it is nonetheless a deliciously entertaining piece of work: exciting, inventive, wistful and hilarious -- crammed with lively characters, letter-perfect voicing and so much visual splendor that I found myself scrutinizing the end-credits for its armada of sculptors, puppeteers, artists, modelers and computer whizzes.

Set in the 19th century, the story involves aspiring explorer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) and his quest to join the ranks of other famous adventurers -- in this case, by proving Bigfoot’s existence. Then when Frost actually locates the legendary creature, he finds it civilized, literate, even cultured -- and longing for other beings like itself. Once the good-hearted “Mr. Link” promises to help Frost, the intrepid explorer takes him across the globe to find his Himalayan cousins, the yetis.

This movie won me over instantly with its opening scene on Loch Ness -- an outlandish encounter with a somewhat hare-brained plesiosaur. Like so much else that follows, it’s a bold mix of action, slap-stick and visual innovation, with just enough quirkiness to make the thing feel fresh and edgy. That edginess is aided by the movie’s plot, which never goes quite where you expect it to.

It’s been a long time since I laughed as loud and often as I did in “Missing Link,” with a script that’s alternately goofy and eccentric. It’s easy to love a family film that uses the term “in flagrante”; that has a villain named Lord Piggot-Dunceby; and one with a minor character who’s “a primatologist, poet laureate and sometime fullback for the Blackheath Football Club.”

And those visuals! Glowing purple sunsets, raging oceans, icy mountains, copper-colored deserts and lush emerald forests -- all achieved with a wondrous blend of stop-motion, rotoscoping and computer animation. If you sit through the credits, you’ll get a tantalizing time-lapse look at the effects behind one jungle scene.

Jackman is excellent, giving his roguish narcissist an undertone of goodness; also terrific are Zoe Saldana, Timothy Olyphant, Stephen Fry, David Walliams and Emma Thompson.

But “Link” belongs to its charming title character, beautifully voiced by Zach Galifianakis. We love him from the moment he opens his mouth; and as his warm kindness thaws the self-centered Frost, we see that the movie’s title refers more to healing relationships than it does to science or evolution.

There’s a little something here for everyone -- but perhaps most of all for fans of Laika’s peerless animation.

I already want to see it again.

“Missing Link,”

directed by Chris Butler

Run time: 95 min.

* * * 1/2 (out of four)

Rated PG for action/peril and some mild rude humor

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