Sunday, September 29, 2019

Do you want to build a snowman?


Terrific visuals and rock-solid emotional underpinnings overcome the weaknesses of a wonky story structure and some seriously terrible kid's komedy.

Written and directed by Jill Culton

Spoiler alert: mild

It's kind of weird that it took three separate tries by four separate animation studios before the odd and as-far-as-I-can-tell-completely-unmotivated recent wave of bigfoot-centric cartoons—coming in varieties both North American (Laika's Missing Link) and Asian (WBA's Smallfoot)—finally arrived at the most glaringly obvious thing that a children's animated feature could do with a bigfoot, which is, of course, remake E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, but with a bigfoot.  It's less weird when you remember that DreamWorks Animation's yeti movie has been groping toward production for eight years now, which likely makes it the first to have actually gotten started, back when it was awarded to Pixar and Sony vet Jill Culton as her first big job at DWA.  At the time, she was given no particular angle on it other than "there's a yeti in it," though one suspects that the implied angle would've been "the yeti is a kind of mythical creature, not unlike the dragon, hint hint."

Culton's movie fell into development hell, and only got out a short while ago, when it was finally given a name—Abominable—and pushed to the highest priority as a collaboration between DWA and their former subsidiary, Chinese production house Pearl Studios (they'd previously worked with DWA on Kung Fu Panda 3, though the thing that really gets animation nerds excited about them is their upcoming production of the great Glen Keane's long-delayed feature directorial debut).  During the resurrection process, Culton, who'd been relieved of her duties in the long meantime, was rehired; and the core of her original story ("tomboyish girl of approximately 16 meets yeti") was kept, but restructured as a travelogue through the kind of picturesque, geographically-inconceivable Sinicana that comes off a lot more like an American turning their vacation planning session into an adventure plot, though evidently this really was what Pearl's executives wanted (hey, China is full of tourists too).  Indeed, animation even began on these scenes whilst the story between them was still being feverishly worked out.

This comes as the precise opposite of a surprise if you've seen Abominable.  If it seems like it's hitting items on a checklist rather than telling an integral story, that's because it is—it kind of literally is, thanks to a thematic device that, in fairness, at least feels organic to its heroine—and it's doing so both in terms of plot (with its tourist's journey to the west) and with its characters (sad daddy's girl on down).  And so it's a little prefab and a little plastic, and they didn't have time to make it less so, drawing off of E.T., as noted, along with Monsters, Inc. (probably Culton's most involved project at Pixar), How to Train Your Dragon (naturally enough), and (in small but important ways beyond just the adjectival name, if maybe not in the ways you'd think) Frozen—plus, for some insane reason, in one bizarre sequence, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.

But, as I want to quickly correct any misapprehension you may have about that, "being a little low on inspiration" does not make it bad.  In fact, I'd call Abominable very good, and while it definitely has a whole lot of bad in it, it's the bad that seems to come with most any work of American family animation (even if it is, as in this case, American family animation with Chinese characteristics): a poorly-curated soundtrack and exceedingly broad and unfunny comic relief.  I mean, that's sort of DreamWorks' legacy right there.  Even their best movies fall victim to it.  (Sometimes their movies are Trolls, and they just lean into it so hard it becomes funny again, as a parody of it.  I ought to be ashamed of how excited I am about World Tour.)  If there's one silver lining to it here, it's that Abominable doesn't rely on pop culture references, probably because of its Chinese market—and if there's one good thing about our film industry doing business with a country engaged in, you know, genocide and stuff, it's that children's movies made under such condominium arrangements are significantly less likely to have, for example, jokes about The Godfather in them.  Instead, Abominable relies on universal stereotypes like "overbearing grandmother," "teen on his phone" and "dork that wants to play basketball."

Well, at least one of them is more properly described as an archetype, and Abominable is the story of Yi (Chloe Bennet), a teenager in an unnamed Chinese city who's just started summer vacation under a cloud of grief brought on by the loss of her father.  She's reacted by burying herself in an urban odd-job hustle, something she's obliged to keep secret from her mother (Michelle Wong) and grandmother (Tsai Chin), though in her self-imposed isolation she's barely speaking to them anyway.  Her ultimate goal is to save up enough cash to take the sightseeing trip that her dad had wanted to take her on, which is (remarkably) indicated with surprising subtlety for a kid's movie, and mostly through the visual means of a bunch of postcards he'd bought of the places he'd have liked to have seen.  And so Yi, busy being depressed on her apartment complex's rooftop, is in the right place at the right time to meet with something extraordinary, a yeti on the run from a band of mercenaries tasked by the aged great white adventurer Burnish (Eddie Izzard) to recapture the proof of his youthful run-in with an abominable snowman, as advised by a milquetoast British zoologist, Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson).  Somehow sensing their kinship, Yi hides the beast, whom she dubs "Everest" (and is "voiced," in his growls and groans and hums by composer Rupert Gregson-Williams).  But she can't hide him for long, and when the chase resumes she inevitably goes along, accidentally dragging her neighbors, teen dreamboat Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and his unathletic cousin Peng (Albert Tsai), on a quest to take Everest back home, which happens to coincide, for reasons that track better emotionally than logically, with her father's planned trip across China.

And while this isn't the worst part of the movie, it is probably the most structurally-unsound: for starters, if you try to trace a line from any Chinese city (and I have tried) through the places their flight takes them, it's impossible; but the part that's actually bothersome is that the movie doesn't even hide the disconnection between its various settings well, with one terrifically egregious moment where they land in the Gobi Desert, and in the space of one cut we're back in a nice forest with no indication how they made it out or why they didn't die.  The journey, explicitly laid out as "thousands of miles," seems to take place over the course of, like, three days, and for some reason the decision was made to relax any possible tension caused by their absence, this feat being accomplished by way of Jin's possession of a phone that runs on perpetual motion, a fabricated story about college visits in Beijing, and the complete abdication of any normal mother's (or grandmother's) horror at discovering their kid ran off to another city without so much as mentioning it to them first.  I mean, it gets the job done, but it's awfully artless about it.  And while I'm not naive enough to expect otherwise, there's something inherently suspicious about any movie that's about a journey from China to Nepal but doesn't mention what's between China and Nepal even once—though this is counterbalanced, intriguingly so, by a moral to the story that loudly proclaims "stop grasping for what isn't yours, and leave what you find in the Himalayas alone."

But that's mostly nitpicking.  Any structural flaw is handily eclipsed by a lot of endemically annoying comedy which the film itself seems slightly repulsed by, given how it sometimes just stamps whole bits out of existence (there's a moment where Everest gets ahold of some caffeinated cola, his pupils become pinpoints in his eyes, and... suddenly, we're in a different scene).  Partly this is down to some truly bad vocal performances, and with few exceptions Abominable is really just not well-voiced: Bennet is perfectly acceptable, which is all Yi requires, but Trainor and especially Tsai routinely play to the very worst aspects of Jin and Peng as written, and in Tsai's case, this means his entire performance is delivered within the deliberately-obnoxious pose of a bratty spittle-prone preteen.  Yet somehow he's not the most obnoxious: grandma and the leader of the mercenaries (Rich Dietl, doing an embarassingly bad Patrick Warburton impression) are in a dead heat for that title.  The only one coming out with honor is Paulson's Zara, who's initially only impressive in that Paulson's making decent choices rather than bad ones, but she eventually winds up kind of honestly great; Izzard, on the other hand, has one or two choice lines ("I love this tree... chop it down and put it in a bag!"), but is ill-served by a character arc that Abominable thinks is there, but is mostly readable only because you know what tropes it's gesturing at.

So it's good that there are a lot of great things in Abominable, too.  Frankly Yi is one of them, as revealed through her magical friendship with another, Everest, and somehow it's hard to avoid feeling like—despite everything—the story Culton wanted to tell really does come passionately through, with Yi's grief taken very seriously and the ways Everest helps her heal presented as legitimately wondrous.  (I am very much in love with the little detail of Yi telling her mom that she sold the violin her father gave her—but she lied, because playing is how she expresses her grief, and she's not ready to share that with her family yet.  I would like it even better if the movie had any empathy for Yi's mom, too, but you can't have everything.)  Everest, meanwhile, is a fantastic piece of cutesy design: he's not Toothless, but nothing is, and despite some of the same mentality going into him, I don't think he's even supposed to be.

 Well... shut up.

Everest is essentially a cross between Totoro and a muppet: an astonishingly flat face, vividly-simplified expressions, and an adorable, ridiculously-pronounced underbite, all of it surrounded by a ball of fine white fluff that clearly attracted the attentions of the animators, possibly even to the detriment of the humans.  (Because the humans are simplified, too, possibly for budgetary reasons, and while it's not a problem as such it represents a very conscious retreat from The Hidden World in the rendering of human surfaces, and sometimes even human movement; there are some rare but jarring moments where you perceive Yi as a collection of CG rigging rather than as a person.)

In any event, this never happens with Everest, who received DWA's new Moonray treatment, as did a whole lot of other things in Abominable, and it's an intoxicating piece of eye candy when it wants to be, with particle and lighting effects offering real mystical power to the various landmarks they wind up at.  (The combination of effects animation and music at the Leshan Buddha is a tiny bit heartbreaking, though I think the film's design ethos as a whole is best expressed in either the madcap ride on the backs of koi made of golden sun-dappled clouds, or in our tantalizing glimpses of yeti society in the snowy mists.)

But did I say "koi made of clouds"?  Yes, and Abominable has some truly out-there visual whimsy, which doesn't always work out on its merits, but usually does.  And it has the good sense to get out in front of what could've been its biggest flaw as a story: Everest's arbitrary nature powers, which invariably get used as a get-out-of-jail-free card.  It's not really tremendously satisfying on that count, but it's not like that's the actual goal, either.  Abominable pursues a dreamy kind of magic—splendid vistas of nonsense—and it's less interested in excitement than it is a young girl's loss.  That's not always ideal, but it still doesn't feel at war with itself, which is an accomplishment, given its birthing pains.  It doesn't work all the time, possibly not even most of the time.  But when it works, you'd better believe it works.

Score: 7/10

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