One wishes to never have to say anything negative about a Laika film. The company only exists because multi-billionaire Phil Knight, founder and former CEO of Nike, is an indulgent father, and his son Travis wanted to run an animation studio; it's been a possibility with every new feature that this might be the one where that indulgence finally runs out (not one of Laika's now-five releases has turned more than a razor-thin profit, and most of them have lost money). So every time we get a new Laika picture, yes, it is a reason to celebrate and be heartened that such a scrappy, lovingly idiosyncratic production house still exists in this ever-more-homogeneous age, because it will absolutely be the case that one of these will be the last. And when that happens, nobody wants to be the person at the funeral wailing because the last time they talked with the deceased, they had a huge fight.

Nonetheless, with Missing Link, I must mournfully declare that Laika has had its first miss. After four very good or outright great films in ten years - 2009's Coraline, 2012's ParaNorman, 2014's The Boxtrolls, 2016's Kubo and the Two Strings - we have in front of us a misfire. A harmless misfire, to be sure: Missing Link is a pleasant enough sit. Achingly pleasant, even; pleasant in the absence of any other emotional response. And at least the film still demonstrates the extraordinary craftsmanship that has been Laika's calling card since the moment they first existed. The sets are still complicated, gorgeous dioramas, in this case complicated by the huge number of them that are daytime exteriors; while there's a certain proud flatness in the skylines in some shots, like we're looking at an extraordinary matte painting rather than a real outside space (and we are looking at neither: the backdrops are mostly CGI), the brightness of the world, with the presence of tangible atmosphere in some sequences - the woods feel damp and musty, the mountains feel crisp and chilly. The stop-motion animation, smoothed by computers and aided by 3-D printers making an enormous array of facial expressions, glides almost imperceptibly, and that "almost" is deliberate, the better to remind us of the labor of this handmade art. The costumes, which are kind of always my favorite part of Laika films, are perfect little period-appropriate bits of tweed and silk, foregrounded in both the story and the visuals, and more than up to the challenge of that focus. There's nothing in here that triggers the same "holy shit, they can do that now?" response I had a half-dozen times or more during Kubo, and maybe this isn't even at the level of Kubo otherwise, but that's a stupidly high level, and it's no sin to miss it.

But boy, is it all kind of snoozy and sedate and dull. There's not a single Laika film where the story is the best part, but up till now, they've done a fine job of assembling scripts that at least aren't actively harmful. The script for Missing Link, I'm sorry to say, is actively harmful. Writer-director Chris Butler, graduating from the story department on Laika's earlier projects, has assembled an old-fashioned globe-trotting adventure that seems, to me at least, to boast some echoes of Around the World in Eighty Days: in the 1870s, Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), an eccentric, desperately wants to prove to London's foremost society of explorers and hunters that his obsession with cryptozoology is founded in good, solid Victorian science. So he makes a bet with the priggish Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) that he'll be admitted to the society once and for all if he can find a sasquatch living in the American woods, as promised by a mysterious letter he just received.

In the Pacific Northwest, he manages to find the cryptid, right where the letter said; that's because the letter was written by this particular sasquatch, whom Sir Lionel names Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis), and he has his own adventure in mind. The U.S. has manifest destinied itself a little too close to Mr. Link's home for comfort, and he's come to the conclusion that the only place he can live in quiet comfort is the Himalayas, where he believes he'll find his distant cousins, the yetis. So another trek around the planet begins, this time with the accompaniment of Sir Lionel's ex-lover, Adalina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), looking for an adventure of her own. Also accompanying, in his fashion, is American bounty hunter Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), hired by Piggot-Dunceby to kill Sir Lionel rather than create an embarrassing situation.

Perhaps that sounds more or less cohesive; it isn't. The big problem with the narrative of Missing Link is that it just kind of shuffles from here to there, shapelessly meandering west and east. It's one thing to cover a trip from New York to Oregon in the span of a ten-second montage; Missing Link does this twice. It hits many locations, all of them creative and evocative, all of them worthy of spending time and learning about, all of them gone in ten minutes or less. The film's pacing presents a weird, unlovely paradox: on the one hand, the undue haste with which our trio of heroes arrive in the Himalayas feels so rushed as to have left no film backing it up; on the other hand, every individual moment is so bereft of urgency that it feels like everything from the line readings to the movement of objects in space is playing at half-speed.

Along the way, we're faced with a tremendous amount of rather banal, genial humor, mostly of a sort that seems to generate a wry smirk and nod of recognition that a joke-shaped proposition has just been stated, rather than to generate, like, laughter. When the film is funny, it's entirely thanks to Galifianakis, whose, warmly earnest, over-literal Mr. Link (he later takes for himself the name Susan) is legitimately my favorite performance he's ever given in a movie, and has just enough silliness to be playful; or sometimes, it's thanks to the indispensable Emma Thompson, who shows up late in the film and has maybe a dozen lines - but she nails them. Mostly, though, the film isn't funny. It's just kind of... cute.

The characterisations aren't nearly enough to add interest in the absence of a strong plot or comedy; not a single member of the cast, human or otherwise, has anything other than the most simplistic kind of personality. We never learn why most of what happens, happens; Sir Lionel agrees to Mr. Link's proposition so casually and with so little effort that it almost feels pointedly devoid of interpersonal conflict, and Adalina is such a bundle of trite, underwritten clichΓ©s that her alleged prickly back-and-forth with Lionel remains completely theoretical. Jackman and Saldana aren't helping matters; he's completely anonymous, she's doing a very inconsistent accent that trips up her line readings. Even characterisations that don't need to be complex are messed up: Stenk is eventually given a random big game hunter motivation that comes out of nowhere, informs nothing, and is forgotten.

Put all this together, and the film is a meandering, plodding mess, a perfunctory travelogue in the company of people who barely rise up to the level of stock figures. Laika's technique is so exquisite that at least Missing Link remains a huge joy to look at; but we have four other Laika films that are hugely joyful to look at, and aren't also tedious so sit through. There's no soul here; no spark of macabre imagination, such as animates the other Laika feature, and the film's restrained sensibility is so doggedly Victorian (while also constantly making fun of Victorian mores) that it doesn't feel what in God's name it could offer any child for whom the gentle comedy is enough. Do kids love jokes about Victorian culture? Does anybody love those, who would also sit through a sluggish kid-friendly adventure comedy? Missing Link is warm-hearted and all, but it's also frankly pointless, and not even Laika's beautiful handiwork is enough to compensate for that.