Released by Warner Animation Group and voiced by a cast of A-listers, the new cartoon, Smallfoot begins with an interesting concept – Yetis encountering humans as the stuff of legend, not the other way around – throws in a moral thread about questioning authority and encouraging self-discovery, and teaches lessons about acceptance and abandoning old prejudices. There are a few songs, and some nice bits of slapstick humor, all meant to keep the kiddies entertained, and maybe even attempt a marketing campaign for the Animated Feature Oscar next year.
But really, if you’re over the age of 10, this movie is going to fall completely flat. The potential of the premise is never realized, the songs are butt, and while the message is good, we have to slog through some really bad story and character development to get there. Plus, honestly the animation isn’t all that great.
Channing Tatum stars as Migo, because the kids are all about Magic Mike. Migo tells the story of how yetis came to live on their mountain (presumably Everest or some other similarly high Himalayan peak), and already you can see how lazy the humor’s going to be. According to their legend, yetis fell out of the butt of a mystical space yak, onto their mountain, which is held up by four golden mammoths underneath the mountain’s cloud line. Below that is nothing. So right off the bat, poop jokes and plot holes. Got it. Anyway, all of their laws are literally carved into stone, worn as a giant vest by the yeti village elder, known as the Stonekeeper (a miscast Common). The stones must never be questioned; doing so warrants banishment.
Migo is the son of Dorgle, the “Gong Ringer,” (Danny DeVito), and yearns for the day when he gets to take over the job of launching himself out of a slingshot, flying across the village, and ringing a giant gong with his (helmet-covered) head, so that the giant light snail (otherwise known as the Sun) can enter the sky and begin the day. Even in a kids movie, this is some hokey ass shit. Anyway, on Migo’s first practice run, he gets distracted by the sight of the Stonekeeper’s daughter, Meechee (Zendaya), and the power of boners causes him to miss the target and fly outside the village, where he sees a plane crash on the mountainside. He finds the pilot inside, a legendary “Smallfoot” (cause their feet are very small by comparison, you see), and begins to question everything he knows. After meeting with Meechee’s friends, who are mocked in the village as being crazy, Migo goes below the clouds, and finds human society, determined to bring a Smallfoot back to the village and prove he’s right.
Meanwhile, on the Nepali ground, a nature documentarian named Percy Patterson (James Corden), is desperate to boost his ratings, as he has failed to garner viral celebrity status. The world weeps, I’m sure. Anyway, he’s willing to do a stunt to pretend to find a yeti, only to run into Migo, the real deal. After understandable fear and initial reluctance (not to mention an admittedly well-done depiction of a language barrier between man and beast), Migo takes Percy back up the mountain, where he is looked upon as a wondrous new discovery, and Migo is elevated to hero status, much to the chagrin of the Stonekeeper and the status quo.
You can guess where things go from there. Blah blah conflict, blah blah lying, yadda yadda could have been solved with one moment of honesty, blah blah secondary conflict, yawn self-sacrifice, something something all is well. You’d figure for a movie that runs almost two hours, they’d have at least tried to introduce a new concept here and there, but no, it’s more formulaic than the bottled milk the majority of the audience is drinking.
The problem is that the film just takes the easy way out far too many times, rather than letting anything develop organically or come up with an original idea. Half the time spent between yetis and humans is used for selfies, because Heaven forfend we actually encourage kids to put down the phones and stop looking at screens (particularly when they’re supposed to be looking at the giant one at the front of the auditorium). The yetis themselves look like cheap Dr. Seuss ripoffs. The moral of acceptance and curiosity is noble, but hollow in this context because the movie isn’t willing to go far enough to truly challenge a child’s way of thinking. At best, the film might piss off a few Christian conservative groups with their radical message of questioning spiritual law and making friends with foreigners.
And then there’s the music, such as it is. In a 110-minute film, there are only five songs, so bland and spaced apart so poorly as to make the experience jarring because no one asked anyone to break out into a solo, and nothing about the initial presentation hints at a musical. It also doesn’t help that each song is just an exposition dump. Migo gets his “Belle” moment introducing the town, Zendaya as Meechee croons a ballad about the wonders of curiosity and asking questions, so blatantly ripping off Disney that I honestly wondered if during the recording sessions she accidentally slipped up and sang, “A Whole New World” instead. Common raps some dark truths to Migo because we had to justify Common’s presence somehow.
The worst offender of all, though, is Corden, who as Percy interrupts a karaoke show to perform a maudlin plea for social media likes in the form of a parody of “Under Pressure.” Hey, Vanilla Ice, you’re finally off the hook. This now stands as the worst crime against Queen and David Bowie’s rock masterpiece. I was so angry watching this number that I almost didn’t hear Bowie and Freddie Mercury turning in their graves. This sin against music is so egregious that it should result in Carpool Karaoke getting canceled, both as a show and as a segment on Corden’s show, because WE JUST CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS, CAN WE, JAMES?!?!?!?!?!?!
Speaking of James, LeBron James is one of the three members of Meechee’s society of outcasts, yet another shoehorned stunt cast. The other two are Gina Rodriguez and Ely Henry, the latter of whom plays the annoying, diminutive Fleem, who just likes to shit-talk and point out foibles. It’s like the producers said, “Hey, we blew our casting budget on LeBron, which means we couldn’t get Kevin Hart to do this, so just do the laziest impersonation of him that you can.”
Now, the film’s not all bad. Like I said, the overall message is positive, even if the movie beats you over the head with it. And while the animation breaks no new ground (the sizing scale between the yetis and the humans is really inconsistent, for example), there are a few good chuckles to be had, particularly when the animation department abandons all pretense of realism and just goes for some good old, Looney Tunes-style slapstick. There’s a moment where Migo tries to cross a rickety wooden bridge that would make Tex Avery smile. Also, as previously mentioned, the sound effects used to depict the language barrier between humans and yetis (though speaking English when in their own perspective) is a nice touch, especially since a good chunk of the dialogue is going to sound like gobbledygook to the target audience anyway.
Apart from that, though, this film is largely a failure. It’ll keep the kids distracted for a couple hours, but don’t expect anything more than that. Honestly, if you want to find a nice, inoffensive movie for the kids with about the same animation quality but a lot more heart, Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero comes out on DVD next month, appropriately just in time for Veterans’ Day.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you believe yetis are real? Do you believe they break dance? Let me know!