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Abominable (2019)
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by Jay Seaver

"A charmer with an outright inaccurate title."
4 stars

You never really know whether an animated DreamWorks movie is going to be trying too hard to be cool or genuinely charming from the trailer, but it falls solidly in the better category. It's got an extremely likable set of young heroes, a creature just goofy enough that you want to take care of it even when it's big and powerful, and enough sense to groan at any terrible pop-culture references it takes great pains to set up.

The creature is a big ball of fur that is being held in a guarded facility but escapes as the movie begins, drawn to the city not so much by the bright lights but a billboard promoting tourism in the Himalayas that he doesn't realize is just a picture until he has to hide from black helicopters on a rooftop. Living in that building is Yi (voice of Chloe Bennett), a teenager spending her summer break working hard to earn money for the trip across China that her late father had planned; Jin (voice of Tenzing Norgay Trainor), an upperclassmen popular with the ladies and on social media; and Peng (voice of Albert Tsai), his nine-year-old basketball-living cousin. As the industrialist planning to reveal yeti to the world (voice of Eddie Izzard) and a zoologist employee (voice of Sarah Paulson) pursue, it becomes clear to Yi that her new friend is basically a kid who can't understand their language well enough to get home without help, so she helps him get on a cargo barge heading in the right direction, the boys trading along with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

With Abominable being at least the third animated bigfoot/yeti movie to come out in the past year (with less-noteworthy efforts likely also following in the wake of Missing Link and Smallfoot), it would be understandable if audiences feel a bit fatigued or like they've seen it before, and the filmmakers do tend of fall into comfortable patterns: "Everest", as the kids wind up making the yeti, has a special connection with nature but comes to trust Yi in part because she plays music for him. Yi herself is an ambitious heroine who doesn't mind getting dirty but is not quite tomboyish enough that she won't roll her eyes at boys being gross, with both the boys and Yi's mother and grandmother being kind of stock types too.

That familiarity is never dull, though. Part of it is that this Chinese co-production is set in an unnamed Chinese city (meant to evoke Shanghai even if the kids all refer to it as "The City"), and the details are just specific enough to not seem too rote to an American audience. Much of it comes down to the kids themselves. The Chinese-American voice cast for the English-language soundtrack never let their characters sound bored or detached even during the less-fantastical moments but also never lean too far into lazy stereotypes the way that it is sometimes easy to do with younger characters. The animators have nifty designs to work with - similar roly-poly physiques on Peng and Everest, chunky footwear that both balances the big head with expressive eyes that they give Yi in contrast to the sleek Jin. They feel very specifically like neighbor kids with a bit of an age spread rather than best friends

Heck, even the adversaries voiced by Eddie Izzard and Sarah Paulson are interesting enough that their scenes aren't just PG-rated twisted comedy, keeping things from getting too scary for the younger kids but still engaging for older audiences. They've got specific points of view that don't let kids dismiss them entirely even when they knuckle down on their pursuit of Everest, and enjoyably entertaining lackeys besides. They may be villains, but they're only briefly scary, and never so much to upset the kids in the audience They help make <i>Abominable</i> an earnestly kid-friendly movie that never bogs down but doesn't get hyperactive either.

And, being DreamWorks, it's beautiful. The studios movies often have one trick sequence to show that the animators can do more than just smooth and steady CGI, and this one's - Everest escape as a wobbly first-person shot - is done quickly and impresses in part by how its "realism" is quickly countered by an abstracted city helps put the audience in the yeti's shoes. What comes after that reminds me a bit of recent Chinese hit <i>Nezha</i> in style (maybe that's just how a lot of big-budget Chinese animation is going to look), and occasionally pulls out creative and incredible visuals without stopping to show off, like a fantastic sequence where a field flows like ocean waves. And while North American moviegoers no longer seem excited by this aspect, DreamWorks still does 3D better than just about anyone, and this movie earns a couple extra bucks added to the ticket price on that count.

"Abominable" is not necessarily the sort of movie that gets an adult viewer excited; it's more often solid than surprising, and while not as torn between its Western and Chinese audiences as some co-productions, it's got that sort of feel. Those aren't bad things, though - it is at least a bit better than a lot of kids' films in most departments, including its international ambitions. It's genuinely charming and that goes a long way.

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originally posted: 10/04/19 13:37:51
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/02/19 Bob Dog Title says it all. 1 stars
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  27-Sep-2019 (PG)
  DVD: 17-Dec-2019


  DVD: 17-Dec-2019

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