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Abominable

Posted October 1, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Given the recent conclusion of their tentpole How to Train Your Dragon franchise and their recent acquisition by Comcast, Dreamworks Animation is in a peculiar spot right now. Granted, animation has an especially long turnaround time and the studio still has many films in active production, so it may be a while before the effects are tangibly felt. Even so, this feels like a shaky time for the studio and there’s the very real question of what the future will look like for them.

(Side note: I’m really, really not a fan of the new Dreamworks Animation bumper. I long for the charming simplicity of the iconic Dreamworks bumper, as opposed to the incoherent clusterfuck that Comcast turned it into.)

So here’s Abominable, written and directed by Jill Culton, formerly a storyboard artist and Head of Development at Pixar under John Lasseter (*ahem*). Reportedly, Culton had been hard at work on developing the film since 2010, right about the time when the Shrek franchise wrapped up. It’s perhaps worth noting that Culton left the project in 2016 — replaced by Tim Johnson and Todd Wilderman — until Culton came back on as the sole director at some point before 2018.

The point is, this movie already had a tumultuous development behind the scenes, even without the corporate shake-ups. It’s also a brand-new IP and Dreamworks’ second Chinese co-production with Pearl Studios (the first being Kung Fu Panda 3), and there are no marquee names in the cast. So just what exactly did we end up with here?

Well, our protagonist is Yi (Chloe Bennet), a teenage girl living in Shanghai. Her father recently died and she’s barely ever at home, spending every waking hour of her summer doing various odd jobs all over town. It’s not immediately clear why she’s working so hard or what she plans to do with the money, but we do know that her father had a passion for travel and Yi dreams of a massive cross-country hiking trip all over China. I’m loathe to spoil precisely why Yi is working herself to the bone, but suffice to say the money’s got nothing to do with it.

The point is, we know straight away that Yi is a feisty tomboy who doesn’t fit in with kids her age, but she doesn’t feel sorry about it or make any excuses for it. She keeps her head down and does the work, so much so that she comes off as distant, and she feels bad about that — especially where her surviving family members are concerned. She’s immediately sympathetic, and it helps that Chloe Bennet’s voice work imbues the character with ample charm.

Anyway, Yi eventually crosses paths with a yeti, later nicknamed “Everest”. Long story short, Everest broke out of a secure facility somewhere in Shanghai and Yi found the poor guy hiding on her rooftop. Thus Yi sets out on an adventure to return Everest to his home in the Himalayas while running from the corporate mercenaries looking to recapture the yeti. Hilarity ensues.

Unwittingly roped into this journey are Yi’s neighbors, the cousins Peng and Jin. Peng (Albert Tsai) starts out as a sympathetic little fat kid who really loves basketball but sucks at it because nobody else will play with him. Alas, the character quickly grated on my nerves, far too loud and annoying for anyone’s good. Though his hyperactive nature makes him an ideal playmate for the young and rambunctious Everest, so that’s nice.

As for Jin (voiced by Tenzing Norgay Trainor, whose grandfather was incidentally one of the first to scale Mount Everest), he’s very much a shallow city boy. He keeps his clothes and hair impeccable, he’s obsessed with posting selfies, and he’s got more girlfriends than he knows what to do with.

That said, we can see early on that Jin’s pride is tempered by a sense of humor (especially when he’s flirting) and while he may tease, he never outright offends or injures. So he’s not really a bully per se, just a preening jackass. As the film progresses, he’s the constant naysayer and the last one to give up on going back to the city. He’s also a prominent source of comic relief, as the film takes no shortage of pleasure in taking the piss out of him at every opportunity.

And what of our villains? Well, Eddie Izzard is on hand to play Mr. Burnish, the crooked old billionaire hell-bent on looting and pillaging the planet and all its wildlife. We’ve also got Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), Burnish’s senior zoologist, set on capturing Everest alive. I want to give the filmmakers credit for putting both of these one-dimensional villains on a very clear track, only to take an unexpected sharp left turn without feeling cheap.

Alas, while that reversal was a pleasant surprise, it wasn’t enough to make these characters the least bit interesting or three-dimensional. It certainly doesn’t help that Izzard and Paulson both turn in voice performances far, FAR below what we should’ve come to expect from either of them. In point of fact, the voice acting is pretty spotty across the board — Chloe Bennet is easily the best of the cast, and even she has a few rough spots.

Before going any further, I feel like we have to address the elephant in the room: Dora and the Lost City of Gold, another movie about a non-white teenage girl on a globetrotting adventure, racing to protect something magical and unique against violent greedy assholes. And both movies came out within months of each other. (Seriously, Dora is still screening at the multiplex where I saw Abominable.) So how do the two stack up?

Well, as much as I loved Yi, Isabela Moner’s lead performance blows this one out of the water. Also, Madeleine Madden’s arc in Dora was pretty much exactly the same as Jin’s in this movie, which doesn’t help the comparison. Furthermore, while Jin’s character wasn’t as eminently hateable, Madden got the more three-dimensional character and thus the more engaging arc.

Dora was much more coherent in its world-building and overall tone. The movie was very clearly built from the ground-up to be an Indiana Jones riff, while Abominable doesn’t have such a clear-cut reference point. That said, both movies have phenomenal production design, with huge sweeping vistas that properly evoke the wonder of exploring faraway lands.

Perhaps more importantly, Dora was repeatedly and emphatically a story about family, friendship, teamwork, coming together, etc. While that’s a crucial part of Abominable, it’s also very much a movie about environmentalism, self-confidence, perseverance, and so on.

Abominable is much more shallow in its treatment of themes, preferring to cast the net wider instead of deeper. Yet by virtue of the premise, the various themes dovetail together and support each other so elegantly that even a surface-level treatment is enough to do the job. Even better, by keeping it more subtle, the film doesn’t come off as quite so preachy.

That said, I’m sorry, but Dora was funnier. By a wide margin. Abominable tries its best to crack a few jokes, but most of them are thrown off by rigid comedic timing and the aforementioned lackluster voice acting. We’ve also got the “whooping snake” running gag, too random and pointless to really get any proper laughs.

By contrast, Dora was a far more effective comedy… well, partly because James Bobin proved himself to be a more capable comic director. But more importantly, Dora did not take itself the least bit seriously. It was highly self-referential, in many ways a loving parody of the source material, which allowed the filmmakers to make all manner of goofy and nonsensical jokes.

Abominable takes itself more seriously, but it also takes more time to slow down. There are significant stretches in which the characters are not in any immediate danger, and more time is taken to learn more about them and their struggles. As a direct result, this movie has far more heart to it.

This is greatly assisted by the central relationship of Yi and Everest, and of course the studio of How to Train Your Dragon fucking crushed that. I could point to any number of cases in point, but my personal favorite is the musical aspect. You see, Yi is a prodigious violin player (it’s a whole thing with her dad, I won’t get into it here) while Everest summons a kind of nature-based magic with rumbling low hums. Thus the tenor of Yi’s violin meshes with the bass of Everest’s hums and the two literally create magic together. It’s a beautiful and frankly ingenious way of showing the chemistry that these two have.

But as long as we’re on the subject, I found myself frustrated by the open-ended nature of Everest’s magic. There are so many times when I found myself asking why Everest would possibly need help getting back home when he can literally move freaking mountains. Mercifully, the film is good enough to paper over this, explaining that the yeti’s magic grows more powerful the closer he gets to home. That still doesn’t quite explain everything, but it’s a great deal better than nothing.

On a final note, the film’s Chinese setting perhaps deserves further mention. On the one hand, I’m all in favor of greater representation in media and it means a lot to have so many Chinese actors in the cast. Hell, this could very well be the first female Asian protagonist in an animated film since freaking Mulan!

With all of that said, I don’t know that the Chinese setting really added much to the film. I didn’t come away from this movie feeling like I had learned anything new about a totally different culture like I did with The Farewell or Crazy Rich Asians. None of the characters (except maybe Nai Nai, played to the cheap seats by Tsai Chin) acted in a way that would’ve been out of place in an American-set film, which is kind of a red flag. Still, at least the film went all-out in portraying the nation’s beauty. The cityscapes and natural landmarks alike are all gleaming with polish.

Though that “light show” plot point at the end of the first act was a straight-up deus ex machina. Seriously, what the hell?

Everything about Abominable boils down to this: It’s simple, but it works. The character designs are simple, but they’re beautifully expressive. The animation is nothing groundbreaking, but it more than gets the job done. The characters themselves are simple, but they’re played and written with so much heart I couldn’t help but love them. The plot is simple, but there’s such an infectious sense of wonder that I still had a lot of fun on the journey.

There isn’t much about this movie that’s new or unpredictable, but it’s just enough to make something exciting and deeply heartfelt. While it’s not exactly a must-see game-changer, I’m happy to give it my stamp of approval. Check it out.