Movie Review: Smallfoot.
Smallfoot is an arctic animated blast of fresh air that’s smart, funny, and topical.
Wow. I did not expect this. WB animation has been making hits as of late, most notably with their LEGO franchise. Smallfoot looked to be another airy confection in that mold: catchy songs, funny characters, frenetic action with a cookie cutter plot. Instead director Karey Kirkpatrick delivers all of the fun, wrapped around a nugget of incisive cultural commentary. Smallfoot is a cartoon that will entertain the kids while challenging viewers young and old to think about the state of the world around them.
Migo (Channing Tatum) is a happy yeti living in a mountain village utopia for abominable snowpersons. The Stonekeeper (Common) passes down the lore of the tribe, etched in tablets he wears, that guide all of their lives. Everyone does their job and nobody asks questions, and they all love it.
That changes when Migo encounters a “Smallfoot” – a human that according to the stones does not exist. Banished for telling his story, Migo and his friends head below the clouds surrounding their home to discover the truth about the Smallfoot…and about the rigid rules of their culture.
Soft as Powder.
As an animated kids flick, Smallfoot checks all of the boxes. The animation is fluid and frenetic, with plenty of rubber band physics and pratfalls. It also manages to be graceful and beautiful in many places. The sweeping vistas of the yeti mountain and human town are drop dead gorgeous. The mostly jokes play well, blending G and PG humor into the mix. The story is multifaceted but has enough time-worn elements that it won’t throw kids for a loop.
There are several memorable songs, which are a delight. Zendaya delivers a rousing theme song that is sweeping and beautiful. Channing Tatum does a fun opening number, and James Corden, who plays the human Percy, riffs on “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie. I was impressed by Common’s song “Let it Lie”: it starts in an ungainly talk-as-rap manner and then builds into a powerful and subversive hip hop ballad.
Hard as Ice.
Karey Kirkpatrick (The Secret World of Arrietty, Imagine That) layers everything with insightful social commentary. The rigid nature of Migo’s society, the Stonekeeper’s willingness to hide the truth for cultural expediency, and Percy’s quest for YouTube fame are all in the crosshair. If that was all that Smallfoot had to say, it would be a solid, thoughtful offering. Like an ice core, however, there are even more layers under those.
It’s hard to find a topic the movie doesn’t touch on. The use of gaslighting to silence dissent, especially female dissent to power, is covered. The marginalization of outside-the-bubble voices gets significant time. The struggle between preserving peace versus sacrificing liberty becomes a central tenant. The in-group versus out-group tribalism. The nature of mob mentality. The uneasy passing of power from one generation to the next. The injustice of modern capitalism and banking. I’m not making this up!) It’s all there. Kirkpatrick is making the fricking Citizen Kane of singing and dancing yeti movies, and I was staggered by the effort.
Cracks in the Ice.
Smallfoot isn’t flawless. It’s humor is mostly of the Loony Tunes variety with a reliance on physical violence. Some of the songs are a bit clunky or forced. You could argue that the ending undercuts some of the messages of the film. Side characters voiced by LeBron James and Yara Shahidi don’t have enough to do. On the levels of kid’s movie, smart adult movie, and cultural critique film, each is about a B+. It’s by weaving them together in such a seamless manner that the film really shines.
I really enjoyed my time with Smallfoot. I went in with no particular expectations and was delivered a fun and thoughtful experience. I thought the central motif of respectfully questioning authority and received wisdom was deftly done, and an important lesson for kids. There’s nothing mean-spirited or snarky about the film’s handling of touchy cultural issues. When Zendaya’s character asks what could be wrong with being curious, she means it. Even if you’re not looking to engage the film on its deeper levels, it is a fun animated romp. As it stands, it looks as if a musical starring Zendaya is going to be my “surprise favorite” of the year two years in a row!