Hollywood animation, your rut is showing.
You have returned to the same premise once too often. You have taken majestic figures from storybooks and children’s imagination—beloved vampires, penguins, gnomes and now yetis—and put them through seemingly identical head-bonking shenanigans, knocking the wonder right out of them. In the process, you have reduced their schtick to the simple ability to manically take more damage to their bodies than a hard shell Samsonite on a JFK luggage carousel.
There is something particularly dispiriting about witnessing this indignity befall the mythic creatures of Nepalese folk legend in Smallfoot; you would think that being up so high in the Himalayas, they would be out of reach of such market-driven banality. Perhaps it’s because the film—while appearing to celebrate difference with its saccharine messaging and a voice cast that includes Zendaya, Danny DeVito and LeBron James—takes something as singular as yetis and turns them into just another furry widget on the animation assembly line.
In Smallfoot, the yetis live above the apparent cloud line on a high peak. They have an advanced society, based on a seemingly pointless industrial endeavor and the unquestioning belief in a code of conduct written on stones worn in a vest by the Stonekeeper (Common). When Migo (Channing Tatum), part of a succession of yetis who have used their heads to bang the gong that they believe summons the sun every day, happens upon a human (a.k.a. “Smallfoot”), his discovery challenges the prophecies of stones and he is cast out of the village. While exiled, he falls in with a group of similarly curious young yetis (including Zendaya, LeBron James, Gina Rodriguez and Ely Henry), members of the S.E.S.—the Smallfoot Exploration Society.
The conflict comes in the form of a morally dubious nature show host named Percy (James Corden), who plans to fake a yeti sighting when he stumbles on a real one. (His redemption arc is as speedy as it is unconvincing.) A handful of songs are sprinkled in; only one—a hip-hop number in which Common’s Stonekeeper explains the yetis’ disastrous history interacting with humans—registers as memorable. The largely serviceable animation is at its best either in close-up, showing the wavy hair of the snowy creatures, or in extreme wide shot, showing off the vertiginous mountain landscape.
The humans in the film are blandly generic. But the yetis, while individually distinct, all share a much larger, troubling problem: they don’t have noses. Perhaps the fact that these creatures could thrive doing highly aerobic activity in an oxygen-deprived environment without the appendage that has been allowing mammals to breath easy since their evolution will not bother you. It did me, as well as one of my two 11-year-old companions—so much so that it took us out of the movie. (The other one didn’t notice.)
After all, the film took away from these mythical snow creatures their uniqueness, and robbed them of personalities, leaving them as little more than ice-bound, supersized Smurfs. To take away their noses as well is to add insult to injury. Furthermore, it speaks to a movie that desperately needs to breath deep the fresh of air of creativity and originality, but instead settles for the short, stale gasps of every animated film that came before it.