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As big and fluffy and playfully unsophisticated as the monster at its core, DreamWorks Animation’s latest romp, Abominable, will no doubt amuse kids ages 10 and under who like their movies simple, sweet and filled with giant blueberries.
Those XXL fruits are some of several eye-catching elements in writer-director Jill Culton’s China-set adventure, whose main star is a yeti so cute and cuddly, its child-sized plush version is probably rolling off the assembly line at this very moment. As for the movie, it’s a little too treacly and childish in places, with a storyline that goes exactly where you expect. But those drawbacks are somewhat compensated for by a series of arresting set-pieces, each one taking us to a spectacular Far East location not yet visited by this kind of high-powered Hollywood cartoon.
Indeed, as the first major co-production between DreamWorks and China’s Pearl Studio, this handsomely made and easily digestible product seems perfectly geared for consumption on both sides of the Pacific, where it will roll out over the next few months following a world premiere in Toronto.
Culton, who co-directed Abominable with Todd Wilderman, was one of the writers of Monsters, Inc. and went on to helm Open Season a few years later. Both movies must have provided firm training ground for this combination creature-feature and ecological fantasy, which begins in the dense city streets of Shanghai and makes its way east, across desert, hills and fields, all the way to the foot of Mount Everest.
Everest is also the name given to the story’s mystical giant beast — which looks like a cross between a Pomeranian and Hayao Miyazaki’s Totoro, and which has the maturity of its target audience — by the girl who runs into him one night on her rooftop: Yi (Chloe Bennet), a rather solitary tomboy who works odd jobs to save up for the trip across China she was planning on taking with her father before he died.
As it turns out, Everest needs to travel in the same direction, both to escape the corporate zoophile, Burnish (Eddie Izzard), who captured the creature for his private collection, and also to reunite with his parents in the Himalayas. Soon enough, Yi and the yeti hit the road, joined by two of the girl’s neighbors and comic-relief providers: the pint-sized basketball freak Peng (Albert Tsai) and the suave ladies’ man Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor). Just behind them are Burnish, his henchwoman Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson) and an army of guards and drones ready to take the big beast down.
Written by Culton, the script tends to follow a foreseeable template and overdoes it somewhat on the cheese, cutting back more than once to a photo of Yi and her dad that the former keeps hidden in her violin case. In fact, the pic offers up a veritable illustration of the term “to get the violin out,” with Yi playing that instrument — beautifully, it must be said — at key emotional moments as the camera (or whatever you call it in a cartoon) twirls endlessly around her.
What works better are the strikingly animated sequences where Everest showcases his own special talent, which is to harness the powers of nature in magical ways. In one scene, he turns a bunch of bushes into Willy Wonka-sized edible berries that come raining down on the characters like cluster bombs. In another, he transforms a field of canola flowers into a massive golden wave that rises up and crashes down like a tsunami.
Working with production designer Max Boas and VFX supervisor Mark Edwards (both from Kung Fu Panda 3), Culton makes the various Chinese settings literally come alive under the yeti’s spell, with the highlight being a set-piece at the Leshan Giant Buddha in Sichuan where the characters experience something close to an epiphany. An earlier sequence, set on the LED-illuminated towers of Pudong, is also rather memorable.
Those eye-popping moments help make up for a movie that can also feel eye-rollingly predictable, with the big bad corporate boss going after the big good monster and his friends, and with everyone in the theater knowing full well how things will turn out. Gluing it all together are familiar themes — the importance of family, belief in oneself, friendship, environmental protection — that are administered like Flintstones Chewable Vitamins, providing values with a sugary aftertaste.
Perhaps DreamWorks didn’t want to take too many risks with this first major cross-cultural venture with China, employing a cast that includes both Asian and Caucasian actors and a story that can be enjoyed by kids anywhere who like their movies to be fully huggable. If the result often feels like a compromise, it’s a well-rendered compromise that impresses in its scale and colorful flights of fancy, as well as in its awesome eagerness to please.
Production companies: DreamWorks Animation, Pearl Studio
Cast: Chloe Bennet, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Albert Tsai, Eddie Izzard, Sarah Paulson, Tsai Chin, Michelle Wong
Director-screenwriter: Jill Culton
Co-director: Todd Wilderman
Producers: Suzanne Buirgy, Peilin Chou
Executive producers: Tim Johnson, Frank Zhu, Li Ruigang
Production designer: Max Boas
Editor: Pamela Ziegenhagen-Shefland
Composer: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Visual effects supervisor: Mark Edwards
Head of character animation: John Hill
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Rated PG, 97 minutes
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