By Tony Di Nizo
While Disney dominates the animation arena, other studios are begging to throw their hat into the ring. Warner Animation Group, an underdog competitor has given the mouse house a run for their money with The Lego Movie franchise. Now they are back with another potential franchise, attempting to create another snow-themed animated adventure à la Frozen, Smallfoot (2018).
Directed by Karey Kirkpatrick and Jason Reisig; Smallfoot follows Migo, a Yeti who discovers a human that he did not know existed. When Migo goes to inform his tribe they immediately banish him because they follow a strict code of conduct that is literally set in stone. Determined to prove them wrong, Migo sets out to find a human so he can prove to his tribe that he was not lying and return in their good graces.
The film has a lot of forward-thinking ideologies and an overall great message for children, but it lacks polish in its execution. Among the list of screenwriters is the team of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who have shaken things up in the past with the film Bad Santa. They continue that trend here as Smallfoot urges kids to think for themselves, challenge authority, and question what they have been taught. The film could be viewed as a commentary on the restrictive nature of government or religion. For the members of the Yeti tribe blindly follow and trust their leaders. This is a bold thematic choice for a movie aimed at mainstream audiences.
However, there lies the problem. The film is aimed at mainstream audiences, meaning that it must be palatable on a mass scale, so the visual choices come in to question due to the bland and awkwardly stylized nature. With antics similar to a Looney Tunes episode, the squash and stretch aesthetic are applied to everything in the film. With characters literally jumping off of cliffs, falling hundreds of feet to the ground to walk away completely unscathed.
Along with the generic aesthetic, the songs are incredibly reminiscent of ones you have heard in other recent animated fare. For example, the opening song is essentially a beat-for-beat recreation of “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie. Despite this song being not nearly as catchy, the film’s soundtrack is fine but forgettable.
The songs are sung by the films all-star cast. Channing Tatum lends his voice to the protagonist Migo, an upbeat and sunny Yeti who is essentially a hairy version of Chris Pratt’s Emmet from The Lego Movie. He begins his day training with his father, played by the greatest actor of all time, Danny DeVito, to slingshot himself through the air to hit a gong with his head. This Yeti tribe believe that the ringing of the gong will make the sun rise.
The rules of this society keep every Yeti in their place. They are told to do what is expected and to blend in. The leader of the tribe is the Stonekeeper played by Common, who wears the rules as a massive robe made of individually-carved stones. Any knowledge of the outside world has been collected by a select group of Yetis who believe in the existence of the Smallfoot (human). When Migo encounters a Smallfoot, they are both equally terrified of each other. One returning gag that the film executes well is the distorted way each species hears each other’s voice. The Yeti comes off as gruff and growly while humans sound high-pitched and squeaky.
Meanwhile, down below in a small town in the Himalayas. Wildlife host, Percy played by James Corden is desperately trying to re-energize his career by faking a confrontation with a Yeti. He doesn’t have to pretend for long when Migo shows up. Corden does a nice job lending his voice to the role. He provides a great sense of warmth and charisma to a character that could have been unlikable due to his aspirations.
The love interest for Migo is the Stonekeeper’s daughter, Meechee, played by Zendaya. A strong, scientifically-minded young woman who is part of the organization that believes in the Smallfoot. Zendaya does a really great job here and boosts her solo number with a strong singing voice. The rest of the supporting cast is rounded out by nice performances from basketball player LeBron James as Gwangi, and Gina Rogriguez as Kolka. Both actors lend a lot of personality to their roles, even with the little screen time they are given. Despite the fact that they are essentially given the same lines to repeat over and over again.
The repetitiveness moves past the dialogue of the film and unfortunately into the visuals. The Yetis look too similar to each other to be easily distinguishable for the audience. Their designs are cute but overall the animation lacks polish. Leaving the movement of their hair and physicality looking more like a video game character versus a character on film. For example, the backgrounds and attention to human behavior make a Pixar film seem like a live action movie. While that style is clearly not the intention of the Smallfoot creative team, the visuals and overall storytelling seem to lack that extra mile to make it something truly special.
While it is not the best animated feature ever made, Smallfoot offers a fun family film with an important message for kids. Now more than ever, we need to be fighting for the truth, and this quest for facts is something that needs to be instilled in the next generation. These themes make this film surprisingly relevant, and I think that it will resonate with children for a very long time.