[This is a repost of our review from the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Abominable opens today.]
The first major co-production between DreamWorks and China’s Pearl Studio, Abominable, does absolutely nothing to break the mold, but it is charming enough and adorable enough to hold your interest during its 90-minute runtime.
The film begins with a prison break scene, as the camera sees through the eyes of a large creature escaping a high-end lab before reaching a Chinese metropolis. It is not until the creature sees a billboard advertising trips to Mount Everest that we notice that we’re following a yeti – but not any yeti, as this one has some sort of vaguely-set powers that kick in whenever it’s convenient.
The adorable abomination—a cross between a Studio Ghibli creature and a dog, but with the personality and behavior of How To Train Your Dragon’sToothless—ends up on the rooftop of a young girl’s apartment building. Yi (Chloe Bennet) is still in the denial stage of grief following the death of her father earlier. She keeps herself as busy as humanly possible to avoid having to deal with her over-caring mother and grandmother, choosing instead to work several part-time jobs in order to save enough money to go on a cross-country trip through mainland China, as it was her father’s dream to take the family on an adventure. Oh, and she is also a parkour expert and a violin prodigy.
She is skeptical of the creature at best, but like Elliot with E.T. or Hiccup with Toothless, she is won over by the adorable nature of this creature she decides to call “Everest.” When the scientists who had Everest trapped come looking for him at Yi’s building, she decides to embark on a journey to return Everest to, well, Mount Everest so he can be with his family. Along for the ride are Yi’s childhood friend Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) who is now too busy trying to be insta-famous to hang out with Yi, and his nerdy basketball star-hopeful cousin Peng (Albert Tsai). Though they are little more than archetypes (the adventurous child with a heart of gold who befriends a magic creature, the rule-abiding skeptic, and the annoying but fun sidekick) the cast add enough emotion and energy to their roles to momentarily trick you into considering them real characters.
Writer-director Jill Culton, one of the few female animated feature directors working with major studios, infuses Abominable with a heart as big as the mountain Yi and her group of young adventurers are trying to get to. Unfortunately, it all feels like ‘been there, done that’ with a story that shares quite a lot with Laika Studios’ Missing Link, and a tone and feel that is way too close to Dreamworks’ recently wrapped up How To Train Your Dragon franchise, only without the craftmanship or personality of either of those movies (or Roger Deakins‘ excellent work as a visual consultant for the Dragon franchise). Despite showcasing beautiful Chinese landscapes that does for China what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand, Abominable doesn’t try anything new with the animation medium. There is no experimentation, not even an attempt to use the medium to its fullest to create something impossible to recreate in live-action, resulting in a bland and repetitive movie with bland and repetitive action that will nonetheless entertain its target audience because it features an adorable toy-selling machine that you’ll absolutely fall in love with.
In an attempt to create villains that are not too frightening for the young ones, Abominable ends up with a bunch of buffoons that are as forgettable as Everest is cute. We’re talking about over-the-top obvious bad guys that have to clarify they’re bribing a guy they’re handing a suitcase full of money to after he saw the yeti by accident. Eddie Izzard plays the man behind this huge yeti hunt by just being himself. Even if the casting of Sarah Paulson as Dr. Zara promises a layered character that is more than meets the eye, it comes as too little, too late. That being said, the script is loaded with one-liners that are sure to consistently put smiles on the audiences’ faces, no matter their age.
Abominable will definitely win over the younger audiences, but those who recognize the film’s obvious attempt at replicating the success of other movies without putting much of an effort to stand out on its own will find themselves wishing they were seeing one of those better movies instead. Even the addition of Coldplay’s hit “Fix You” plays as an attempt to replicate Jónsi’s work in the Dragon franchise. Ultimately, your enjoyment of Abominable will depend on your ability to look past its lack of personality and just embrace its silly, harmless and adorable story of a girl and her yeti.