Synopsis – A Yeti is convinced that the elusive creatures known as “humans” really do exist.
My Take – Even though Disney and Pixar continue to dominate the animation frontier, other studios like DreamWorks, Illumination Entertainment among many are continuing their bid to make their own mark in the genre with honest and creative efforts. While they do sometimes lack in substance and contain a lot of wise cracks unnecessarily, they also at times contain enough depth and darkness to foil the Disney/Pixar strong hold. Joining the race this time around is Warner Animation Group, the producers behind the ‘LEGO’ based films, which contain laugh-out-loud humor for the kids and a knowing, subversive quality to keep the adults enough entertained. While their previous effort, ‘Storks’, was much of a substandard effort, their latest film is certainly an improvement.
Adapted from the book ‘Yeti Tracks’ from animator Sergio Pablos, this film sees its directors, Dreamworks Animation veteran Karey Kirkpatrick and Jason Reisig, putting a clever little spin on the BigFoot/Humans switch-a-roo and produce a lively, fast-paced colorful action adventure that is backed by appealing protagonists and well-judged comic moments. Sure, this one too doesn’t walk in with Disney-level expectations, with the yeti character designs being a little odd, as though the animators were trying to avoid too close a resemblance to Pixar‘s Sully from Monsters. Inc, and the featured songs are catchy rather than great.
But the film earns brownies for cleverly inverting the point-of-view tale of how human and Yetis are to be told, the message here, which I personally did thought got a bit dark toned eventually, all before it got lighted up into a nice, easily understood ending for the kids.
The story follows Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum), a yeti who lives with a clan of big-foots high up in the Himalayan mountains where they live peacefully in a cheerful isolation. They follow legends engraved onto stones, worn as robe by the village leader, the Stonekeeper (voiced by Common), which foretold that there is nothing below the clouds and that there is no other creatures except for themselves and yaks. No one is allowed to question the stones or the Stonekeeper, under threat of banishment. But Migo is happy to be in his own place, apprenticing with his father, Dorgle (voiced by Danny DeVito), who holds the singular position as a gong-ringer, whose job is to give light and heat to the world.
However during a practice run, Migo hurtles down a mountainside and into the path of a crashing plane. He soon finds himself face to face with a legendary Smallfoot (also known as a human), who’s parachute swoops him away. The problem is that, according to the stones, there’s no such thing as a Smallfoot, and when Migo refuses to recant, he is exiled. Luckily for him, he doesn’t stay alone for long, as the members of the secret Smallfoot Evidentiary Society, or SES, seek him out. The group is comprised the town misfits – Gwangi (voiced by LeBron James), Kolka (voiced by Gina Rodriguez) and Fleem (voiced by Ely Henry) – but its leader is none other than the Stonekeeper’s smart and inquisitive daughter, Meechee (voiced by Zendaya), who has a problem with her father’s decree that asking questions should be a banishing offense.
Meanwhile, in a Nepalese village below the clouds, television nature show host Percy Patterson (voiced by James Corden) is feeling the pressure of plummeting ratings and viral video competition. To the disgust of his levelheaded producer Brenda (voiced by Yara Shahidi), he plots to fake a Bigfoot encounter to regain his fame and fortune – until he encounters the real thing in the towering Migo. Very soon we get a glimpse into who the real savage is, and who the real monsters are.
The concept is simple, and amusing: yetis fear humans just like humans fear yetis. At first I thought the traditional route of these animated films about outcasts was where the film was going, but then twists it with a clever, topical message about the perils of putting dogma and self-interest ahead of critical thinking and the greater good. It does also allow a deeper insight into this yeti society. We do find out what the yetis are doing with their jobs, how that affects the mountain and what they do to keep the rest of the world closed off. Without giving anything away, I’ll admit that things go forward with little surprise.
My biggest takeaway from this film, other than thinking it was cute and relating way too hard to one of the goat characters, was that we should always be comfortable questioning our beliefs – whether it be religious, authoritarian, etc. I know this topic is a bit heavy for a review of a kid’s film but I think it’s important to bring up because it’s so blatantly exposed in the film. I’m not saying we should break down into total anarchy, but I think it’s healthy to be able to question ideas and live in a world where we have that freedom.
However, this adult-friendly message may elude kids too busy laughing at the many visual gags, including a fantastic sequence involving fraying rope that brings to mind classic Warner animations of yesteryear, but it elevates the film above most of its peers and ensures that not-so-young audience members are entertained too. The animation is really good. Not only are there a lot of gorgeous looking scenes of the mountains, snow covered landscapes, and its towns, but the designs have the right balance of goofy and likable. You can tell this is a Warner Brothers cartoon, because the slapstick is where the animation really shines.
Worthy of mention are the couple of Looney Tunes-esque sequences that are clearly meant to hark back to its parent studio’s golden era of animation. Migo’s initial descent becomes an extended set-piece that includes a tangle with a rope-bridge and its two precipitous cliffs, as well as with the broken body of the propeller plane which Migo had seen the original smallfoot crash-land out of. Later on, a refuge from a blizzard inside a deep cave becomes the scene of a series of comic misunderstandings, including a warming up on top of a pile of burning firewood, an encounter with an irate mother bear who had just put her baby cubs to sleep, and a classic display of language barriers.
There is inventiveness in each of these gags, and calibration in both pace and rhythm, so even though they are zippy and zany, they never get too hectic for their own good. It’s a welcome reminder that cartoons work best when being – well, cartoonish. Kids will also love the couple of musical numbers, including the narration-and-song opening ‘Perfection’ by Channing Tatum, the inspirational ‘Wonderful Life’ by Zendaya, and the edgy rap ‘Let It Lie‘ by Common. To be sure, none of these reach the heights of Disney films, but they are definitely catchy enough to sustain their own energetically animated diversions. Those familiar with Corden‘s ‘Carpool Karaoke’ series will be glad to know he has a quirky number here too, that is based on Queen‘s ‘Under Pressure’.
However, had the final act gone more outside of the box, I may have phrased it more. There was a lot of things that has the film had going for it, but sadly it all ended up just feeling nothing spectacular. The film may be cute, but it didn’t push the boundaries of creativity, character cultivation or design. It’s not bad by any means, and while there is some originality, all the pieces don’t quite line up. The film also found itself having difficulties with finding that balance between too much and too little laughs. The film loves beating running joke horses to death, while skimping on jokes that were more diverse and bridged multiple ages. Plus, much more was needed on many fronts to really tie all the characters together and launch more stories to the mix. This is probably due to lower run time, which was appreciated, but perhaps will set up for some type of Netflix series.
Now don’t get me wrong. This is not a bad animated film and it’s certainly doesn’t reach awful heights, but it just felt so predictable and basic that it just left me disappointed which is really a shame because I really wanted to this to be great. Thankfully, the voice talents more than make up for it. Led by Channing Tatum, who proved to be likable lead, while James Corden, Common, Zendaya, Gina Rodriguez, Yara Shahidi, LeBron James, Ely Henry, Jimmy Tatro and Danny DeVito provide great supporting turns. On the whole, ‘Smallfoot is a delightful animated romp with a clever premise and bold message which despite its ill-conceived flaws manages to be entertaining and gorgeous to look at.
Rated – PG
Run Time – 96 minutes