Movie Review: Abominable.
DreamWorks new animated adventure is gorgeous, entertaining, and nakedly out to play your emotions like a violin.
The latest Yeti cartoon to hit theaters comes by way of DreamWorks and director Jill Culton. Culton broke ground as the first female director of a major computer animated film with Open Season and follows up with Abominable, a pleasing yet fraught adventure.
This is one of those movies where every compliment carries a criticism and every criticism sets up a compliment. DreamWorks takes you on a tour of gorgeous vistas via an itinerary that twists the plot into pretzels and feels like China’s tourism board drew up the script. We get get a strong lead protagonist, mostly because the film makes no attempt to have their adult star pretend to be a kid. Fantastic whimsy and magic abound, much of it ad hoc or nonsensical. Every element of the film seems crafted to touch your heart, but can often feel like emotional manipulation. Sounds pretty terrible, right? Funny enough, despite the chicanery the end product winds up being enjoyable. I can see all of the strings it pulls to get me where it wants me to be. As long as you don’t mind a shady cab driver, it winds up being a fun ride.
Yi (Chloe Bennet) papers over the hurt she feels for the loss of her father by throwing herself into odd jobs that keep her away from her mother and grandmother. She dreams of saving enough cash to take a tour of China, a trip her late father crafted for both of them. She hoards her earnings on her secret rooftop hideaway, where she also practices the violin he left to her. One night, she discovers an intruder in her sanctuary: an injured, juvenile Abominable Snowman. On the run from a fanatical collector of cryptozoological creatures (Eddie Izzard), the Yeti nicknamed Everest longs to return to his mountain home. Yi and her neighbors Jin and Peng decide to help the big fuzzball, and set off on a grand adventure, with a dogged zoologist (Sarah Paulson) in hot pursuit.
Abominable deploys its visual and musical cues with pinpoint accuracy. A film’s score can be like a dance with the themes and tone of a movie, but here the sound and music work were definitely leading the dance. Yi’s violin is weaponized to target your heartstrings. I’m a sucker for the violin. A few notes get me misty. I’m sure that’s not a unique feeling – kids raised on Peter and the Wolf are taught that certain instruments have been conditioned in us to create certain responses. Oboes are melancholy. Kettle drums are ominous. Fifes and piccolos are effervescent and energetic. It’s baked into the culture, and it’s sharpened to a point in Abominable.
The design of Everest also presses subconscious buttons. His neotenous looks (deliberately childlike with big eyes and small nose) and kittenish behavior stood out. It’s like somebody took the character design and jacked up the cute slider to max level for emotional voltage. I mean, Yeti are supposed to be the missing link between humans and apes. Everest is the missing link between a teddy bear and a kitty cat. Nothing about him fits the Yeti folklore except shaggy fur. He displays a bevy of mystical powers, climbs like Spider-Man, and is as smart or dumb as the plot needs him to be. He magically solves every problem: Yi’s violin breaks; Everest fixes it. They need food; Everest magics some up. They need to catch a train; Everest summons a whirlwind. He’s the perfect deus ex furball to get the script out of the numerous binds it finds itself in when trying to wedge other manipulations into the plot.
Cause and Effect.
There is so much in the plot and execution of the film that felt ad hoc, that I had two choices: it was unintentional and the film-making was just a Sloppy Joe sandwich, or it was intentional and was nakedly pushing mental buttons for effect. I have to believe it was the latter. Mostly because it was very effective. I found Chloe Bennet to be an engaging and powerful lead…but a lot of her heft came from Chloe Bennet playing an older, tough-minded character like she does on Agents of SHIELD, not a mixed up 17 year old girl. She sounded and acted like an adult in most situations, and had more of the emotional spectrum you’d expect of somebody a decade older than their on-screen character. It also doesn’t help that the human characters are no less super-powered than Everest.
They perform incredible feats that were literally incredible. I balked almost constantly. Three city kids walk most of the 3.3 thousand km distance to Mt. Everest with no food, water, shelter or clothing? Sure! Traverse the Gobi Dessert in pretty much a day? Why not? Display super-human grip strength scaling buildings, mountains, and even grabbing a snow-covered rope in free fall while being bare-handed in the Himalayas? I guess next stop Ninja Warrior! Seriously, these kids get most of the way up Everest without gear, oxygen, or a heat source. The movie thinks it can solve this problem by having them don parkas! Mind boggling. But the end result is a breathless journey through some of the most beautiful parts of China, impeccably brought to life through the animation. These kids have to be impervious to the elements so DreamWorks can dazzle us with some of the most eye-catching animation of natural settings I’ve ever seen. Put Pixar to shame gorgeous. The water, snow, and particle effects were mesmerizing. The character animation was fluid, expressive, and delightful. The animation chops for Abominable are top-notch.
Aren’t You Maybe Overthinking This?
“It’s just a fun kid’s flick, not a travelogue!” I can’t quite buy into that argument. The movie is PG, so it’s not like it’s for itty bitty babies who won’t notice the odd logic. (And movies aimed at younger audiences can be smart. Toy Story 4 is G rated and doesn’t indulge in mindlessness.) Certainly, some of the manipulation is fairly standard. Every movie in existence uses music and heavy-handed facial expressions to drive emotional engagement. Most aren’t quite so unsubtle about it, but fine. Some of it is harmless. A magical MacGuffin character isn’t out of place in kid films…or many adult films, honestly. Some of it is shabby. It often acts like a Visit China brochure. It also slips actual marketing in. Don’t think I didn’t see you sneak in those McDonald’s billboards, DreamWorks.
Some of it really strains suspension of disbelief, harming the story but not fatally wounding it. The kids do travel by train, boat, truck, and giant dandelion, so maybe that covers some of the enormous distances in the minuscule timescale. But they’re going all over hell’s half acre if they’re headed to Mt. Everest from Shanghai. The Gobi Desert isn’t even remotely on the way! It is also 1.4 thousand km from the Yellow Mountains, so that dandelion really motored…and once again those kids really managed to hold on tight. “Hold on to the skids of a helicopter for hours” level of death grip. And then they backtrack to the Leshan Buddha, which is actually further away from their destination. Just so we could get a really gorgeous scene and powerful musical bit.
I think it’s a wise move to keep your eye on anything that is willing to use psychological tricks to get you to do something. Even if that something is “Ohh!” and “Ahh!” over beautiful scenery, or feel emotionally wed to characters because they are cute and play poignant music. At the least, it dulls the sensibilities. At the worst, it trains kids to respond to crass manipulation. Disney deploys a lot of these tactics, but rarely so blatantly. They take care to embed it in a plausible narrative. Does Moana survive just as many impossible things as Yi? Kinda. But the story takes pains to show her fail, get knocked around, and suffer emotional and physical setbacks. Heck, even Smallfoot bothered to deal with Percy getting altitude sickness and needing to be safeguarded from the elements (admittedly after he froze into a cartoon Popsicle.) You can do cartoony stuff, but it should be smarter than just a hand-waive move to get from point A to B. It’s lazy, and encouraging kids to accept shoddy craftsmanship and shady tactics in order to get an immediate emotional payoff is really not the kind of thing we need to encourage further these days.
Well. I kinda took Abominable out to the wood shed, there. I didn’t actually hate it! I thought it featured some of the most beautifully crafted animation sequences I’ve witnessed. It just connects those sequences in some really questionable ways. Most of those ways a majority of people will shake off. I’ve looked over other reviews and the worst sin most people pick out is a generic story. Really? Disney does the same princess story for a billion years, and you think “get a cute creature home” is too passé? At its heart, I thought Abominable’s story was just fine. A young girl dealing with abandonment and family issues finds a lost soul in the same straits who she can help, while he is in actuality helping her too. That’s a good hook. Throw in some really basic environmentalism, some “don’t judge a book by its cover” tropes, and a dollop of “we’re all in this together” and you get a charming mix.
I’m more concerned about a studio demonstrating that it is willing to get your emotional engagement by any means necessary. I just could not shake all of the little tugs and tweaks and cues that were being slipped in to drive your responses. They became a giant avalanche of manipulation that I left the theater resenting. Which is a damn shame. Abominable was touching and beautiful in places. There was a good structure underneath; it that needed to be tightened up and streamlined instead of brushed aside with tricks. I wanted to believe its heart was in the right place for most of the tugs, but there was just so many of them. When it wasn’t prodding me to love the film, I really liked the film. Just put the prod away next time.