Why 'Smallfoot' Should Have Embraced Its Musical Elements

The film isn't being sold for its music, but perhaps it should be.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
The film isn't being sold for its music, but perhaps it should be.

There’s an old episode of South Park called “Simpsons Already Did It,” which plays off the running gag that any idea the foulmouthed kids from the eponymous Colorado town have...well, they got beaten to the punch by The Simpsons. The basic premise of the joke — that the groundbreaking TV series simply got to the good ideas before anyone else could — is one that could be applied to feature animation as well. So many of today’s mainstream animated films, however enjoyable they may be, are unable to avoid feeling like they’re simply retelling stories that Disney and/or Pixar has already told. The latest effort from Warner Animation Group, Smallfoot, has a unique concept but much of the details spinning out from that concept feels like it’s been done before by the House of Mouse.

So far, the biggest way in which Warner Animation Group has stood out from the crowd has been through the films they’ve made all about toys. The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie are both boisterously funny and fast-paced (even if the 2014 original feels like something of a riff on the themes that Pixar touched upon in its first feature, Toy Story), but fellow entry The Lego Ninjago Movie struggled to take off nearly as well. The same could be said of the previous non-Lego film from the studio, Storks, which also seemed to expand on a Pixar idea, from their short film Partly Cloudy. Now, we have Smallfoot, which has a seemingly can’t-miss hook: what if Yetis were real, and what if they treated humans like mythical creatures the way we treat Yetis?

Early on, it becomes clear how Smallfoot is going to be a bit different from the other WAG films: lead character Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum) is beginning another day in his mountain village above the clouds that separate these abominable snowmen from the Himalayas, and he...bursts into song. Yes, even though the ads may not consistently suggest this, Smallfoot is a musical. Kind of. There are, including the end-credits song performed by Niall Horan, seven songs in Smallfoot, which still somehow manages to treat the music almost like an afterthought. Though the two standout sequences are musical — an early song performed by Zendaya with gorgeous animated flourishes as well as a hip-hop number performed by Common — Smallfoot awkwardly lurches through the other songs instead of wholeheartedly embracing the musical genre.

The plot kicks in when Migo sees a human (otherwise known as a “smallfoot”), after which most other Yetis shun him to the point of banishment. Being ostracized by the community, he eventually goes beneath the clouds and explores the human village to prove he’s not crazy. Soon, he encounters Percy Patterson (James Corden), a desperate-for-attention nature-TV host who initially treats seeing a Yeti as his ticket to fame. (One of the musical numbers is also the film’s worst sequence, as Percy uses a karaoke version of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” to whine about not being popular anymore in verse. So yes, in this movie, James Corden does karaoke. Just not in a car.)  

There’s nothing wrong with making an animated musical, of course. Plenty of the greatest animated films are themselves musicals, and recent Disney films like Frozen and Moana are perhaps more memorable specifically because they’re musicals. But it also helps that each of those films have instantly unforgettable musical sequences that almost transcend the film. For Frozen, it’s “Let It Go”, while Moana has “You’re Welcome” and “How Far I’ll Go”. Common, playing the leader of the Yetis, has “Let It Lie,” in which the fiercely protective leader reveals to Migo that he’s fully aware that humans are real. It’s because humans are real, and have attacked Yetis, that he and his ancestors came up with a system to keep the other Yetis in the dark about the smallfoot, lest humans encounter the Yetis and try to kill them once more. The sequence, as directed by Karey Kirkpatrick, is as visually remarkable as the music and lyrics are intelligent and entrancing.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of Smallfoot isn’t nearly as inspired. There’s one visually snappy gag, when Migo first descends below the clouds with disastrous, Looney Tunes-esque results. But mostly, Smallfoot is content to be amiable and pleasant in the moment without making its mark. There are plenty of animated films competing for attention, but still too few of them try to be musicals, let alone great musicals. Most of Warner Animation Group’s films are action-heavy; no doubt, that’s what we’ll get from next year’s The Lego Movie: The Second Part. It was a smart idea for Smallfoot to try and be WAG’s first musical. If only they’d embraced this as more than just an idea.

  • Josh Spiegel