DreamWorks’ latest animated feature, Abominable, is the third movie to come out in the last 12 months concerning the welfare of yetis and yeti-adjacent species. The previous two films represent the extremes of the quality spectrum on the subject, from the brilliantly designed Missing Link to the crime against humanity that was Smallfoot. My initial thoughts when going to see this were that a) this would probably split the difference between the two, as DreamWorks makes fun cartoons, but not necessarily high quality ones; and b) that apart from John Ratzenberger’s requisite cameo in Monsters Inc. and Monsters University, I’m surprised Disney/Pixar hasn’t really tackled the subject matter.
The latter is just a meta consideration I’ll ponder over needlessly for the rest of my days, and has no real bearing here. The former, on the other hand, I’m happy to say is not the case, as this film goes well beyond a middling effort, mostly because unlike the other two, there’s a well-defined target audience. More importantly, though, it gets much closer to the Laika side of the equation when it comes to the quality of the animation itself.
Technically a co-production of DreamWorks and Chinese animation house Pearl Studio (itself formerly called Oriental DreamWorks, as it’s their Asian department), Abominable takes a few minutes to truly get going, despite an intriguing first-person opening sequence when the titular yeti (later dubbed “Everest” after it recognizes a billboard for the mountain as its home) escapes from a research lab, and is chased by both the paramilitary scientists running the facility and actual government agents. He finds cover on the roof of a Shanghai apartment building, where he’s discovered the next day by the film’s human lead, Yi, voiced by Chloe Bennet.
When Yi was introduced, I admit that I was worried about the direction the film might take. The slightly tomboyish waif is reserved and aloof around her mother and grandmother (Michelle Wong and Tsai Chin, respectively), sneaking out of the house to do an array of odd jobs around the neighborhood while a bad pop song plays in the background. I immediately got flashbacks to last year’s tragic A Wrinkle in Time adaptation. She even has two male counterparts that reminded me heavily of Charles Wallace and Calvin. The first is her diminutive neighbor, Peng (Albert Tsai), who despite his short stature imagines himself as the next Yao Ming. The other is Peng’s cousin, Jin, a rich, handsome boy who charms all the girls and lives for his social media presence. He’s voiced by the appropriately named (given the yeti’s name/home) Tenzing Norgay Trainor. Finally, the reason Yi does all these jobs (for cash only), is to fund a cross-country trip around China that her late father had always planned for them. So yeah, assertive and resourceful tween girl, horrible pop songs that essentially narrate the action we see, two one-dimensional boys who hang around her, and a lost father? You can understand my anxiety.
It also doesn’t help that despite being in a version of China where everyone speaks perfect English with no accents (I’m guessing native Chinese actors were used for the simultaneous Asian release), the film does go for a few cheap gags early on that might make the more woke viewers uncomfortable. The first is the fact that Yi plays violin (her father’s, to be precise), which is at first played somewhat for clichéd laughs, but thankfully becomes a much more serious aspect going forward. The second is that Yi’s grandmother, Nai Nai, is basically every stereotypical old Chinese lady you’ve ever seen. She’s the only character with an accent, her English is broken and filled with trite proverbs, and her design is that of a squat woman in a track suit who pops up like a silent assassin whenever an easy sight gag is needed. Thankfully her role in the film is not that large, or it might have been problematic. More importantly, once the plot finally gets going (about 15 minutes in), such unpleasantness is largely forgotten.
After their initial encounter on the roof, Yi and Everest quickly become friends, thanks in large part to Everest’s hidden talent. Yi plays him some violin to help the scared yeti relax, and music does soothe the not-so-savage beast. In fact, Everest takes it upon himself to join in, his low register hums not only harmonizing with Yi but affecting anything natural around him. At first it’s helping a dead plant bloom. Later on he can literally make hills roll. It’s a very convenient skill that serves little purpose beyond propelling the plot and giving our heroes yet another chance to escape and advance on their journey, but visually it is amazing nonetheless.
Everest is pursued chiefly by a former explorer-turned-billionaire called Burnish (Eddie Izzard), who once encountered a yeti, but was laughed out of high society because he couldn’t provide proof (very similar to Hugh Jackman’s character in Missing Link in that respect, though Burnish is much more bitter than his spiritual predecessor). He is assisted by Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), who looks like Brave‘s Merida grew up and became a chemist.
Much of the plot is rote, but in this instance, it’s okay, because this is very much a film directed straight at little kids. Whereas the previous yeti films could claim an audience of all ages, this one caters almost entirely to the smallest among us. Everest is designed less like a monster and more like if Toothless from the How to Train Your Dragon series (also DreamWorks) was an ice-type Pokémon. When Yi, Peng, and Jin take Everest out of the city in hopes of getting him home to Mt. Everest, they discover that he is also a child, little more than a baby of his species to be precise, which gives the 2-6 year-old audience a perfectly cuddly avatar (with plenty of marketing opportunities, I’m sure). He’s cute, he’s playful, and even the bodily function humor (of which there is a refreshingly short supply, given that this is the studio that brought us both the Shrek and Kung Fu Panda series) is somehow endearing instead of lazy and annoying.
There’s even a really good moment when the film beautifully allows the kids to understand more complex emotions like grief and mortality. While resting at a great Buddha shrine, Yi finally lets herself mourn her father, playing her violin with Everest accompanying. The resulting show of nature is radiant, and the fact that the whole sequence is bookended by Coldplay’s “Fix You” was enough to even get one of the adults in the audience a bit misty-eyed. Okay, fine, it was me. It’s one of the few times that something from DreamWorks came close to capturing the Disney-level magic that has evaded the studio for most of its existence.
This film isn’t profound, but it doesn’t need to be. The story is simple and predictable, and there were certainly a few moments that had me putting on my Jeremy from CinemaSins voice and muttering, “Some bullshit.” But thanks to the Asian influence in the animation process, we likely have the most gorgeous cartoon to ever come out of DreamWorks. And while some of the ground has been tread a hundred times, there are enough genuine character moments to make the film seem like a fresh take. There’s even a half-decent pop song by Bebe Rexha during the credits. But most importantly, this is just a sweet, smart kiddie flick that takes the young audience on a grand scale adventure with eye-popping visuals, and yet it can still slow down enough to teach nice life lessons about friendship and empathy. It won’t win an Oscar or anything (that’ll almost certainly be a grudge match between Toy Story 4 and Frozen 2; submissions will be announced later this month, I believe), but it’s still well worth your time, especially if you have little ones.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Which yeti movie was your favorite? Could you eat a giant blueberry in one sitting? Let me know!