Having previously co-produced Kung Fu Panda 3 with Pearl Studio, DreamWorks Animation now brings us the Chinese animation house’s first original film, Abominable, which is a perfectly lovely movie whose title doesn’t suit it at all. From writer-director Jill Culton, the film offers up a lively and colourful road trip across China with three youngsters and the baby yeti they’ve taken into their care.
When the film begins, teenage Yi (Chloe Bennet) is getting over her father’s untimely death by throwing herself into the gig economy and escaping to the rooftop of her apartment building by night. It’s there that she finds a big white fluffy creature hiding from a private scientific organization’s roving helicopters and staring wistfully at a nearby “Visit Everest” billboard.
With her preening Insta-famous friend Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and his irrepressible young cousin Peng (Albert Tsai) in tow, Yi takes her charge, whom she calls Everest, on an epic journey to the mountains he’s been missing. Hot on their tail, zealous billionaire Burnish (Eddie Izzard) and zoologist Dr Zara (Sarah Paulson) aim to bring the not-so-abominable snowman back to the city to discover more about his innate magical powers.
Intentionally or not, DreamWorks Animation has shown a weird knack for engineering Deep Impact–Armageddon situations with its projects. Beyond Antz and A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and Shark Tale, and Flushed Away and Ratatouille, this yeti film arrives within a year of WB’s Smallfoot (“Zendaya is Meechee!”), and Laika’s sasquatch movie Missing Link.
That’s a fluke of timing, because this one has been in development long enough that it swerved from its original, better title of Everest after Baltasar Kormákur’s disaster movie of the same name hit theaters in 2015. But wherever it feels derivative, it’s been drawn from countless other movies instead, ranging from Pixar‘s Up to the endlessly copiable “kid and creature” dynamic of E.T. Even if the parts aren’t astonishingly original, their sum is entirely likeable, albeit not especially memorable.
The most surprising thing is that for all the international cooperation that went into this, it’s the most baldly Americanized example of all the Chinese co-productions we’ve seen on the big screen in recent years. It goes so far that large swaths of the film have reportedly been rewritten in the dub for the Chinese market to make the comedy work for international audiences.
That said, this isn’t a broad comedy in the vein of DreamWorks’ more middle-of-the-road fare. Its tone lands pretty much slap bang in-between wacky laughers like the Madagascar films and the emotionally charged adventure of the How to Train Your Dragon movies. On paper, that means breathtaking animation, cute characters, a few good gags, and little to none of the pop culture references that often overwhelm these movies.
It largely holds that contrast pretty well, but that evident conflict keeps it from soaring. While the film largely thrives on Rupert Gregson-Williams’ evocative original score, it picks exactly the wrong pop song at exactly the wrong moment. It’s not even the song itself, which is a certain Marmite band’s most well-known stadium anthem, but the way it’s crowbarred into the soundtrack during the film’s most emotional scene.
Happily, the film is too endearing for any of these quibbles to weigh it down too much. Everest is an absolute triumph of cuddly character design–a giant baby who glows with bioluminescence when he hums a tune, magically manifesting some glorious quirks of animation that mark all of the movie’s most creative moments. Where there could have been a feeling of ‘DreamWorks by numbers’ with the visuals, there are some jaw-dropping sequences to behold here, ranging from the trippy to the majestic.
Even if it sometimes feels twice-cooked by committee, there’s not an ounce of cynicism in its good-natured capering. If you have young kids and you’re only seeing one new film during the October half-term holidays, Farmageddon: A Shaun The Sheep Movie is still the big ticket, but if you’re going back to the cinema for more, Abominable is a suitably heartwarming alternative.
Abominable is in theaters now.