2018, PG, 106 min. Directed by Karey Kirkpatrick, Jason Reisig. Voices by Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, Common, LeBron James, Danny DeVito, Gina Rodriguez, Yara Shahidi, Ely Henry, Jimmy Tatro, Patricia Heaton.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 28, 2018
Much like Monsters, Inc., this animated children’s film inverts the common storyline about human beings’ fear of others and puts the focus on the fears that other species have for human beings – in this case, a village of yetis who live in the Himalayas, high above the clouds. A baroque system of beliefs that are literally carved into stones keeps the community happily whirring and isolated from anything that might contradict its basic tenets (i.e., an origin story in which yetis were pooped from the butt of the Great Sky Yak and that the sun is a giant snail that needs to be wakened every morning by a giant gong). The opening tune attests to their “perfect” lives but warns that the stones should not be doubted: “If you have a question, stuff it down,” they sing. The plot of Smallfoot inherently challenges the wisdom of this philosophy and sides in favor of truth and the questioning of authority. It is a film that encourages young yetis everywhere to cast off their intellectual blinders.
Migo (Tatum) is a yeti in training to take over the position of the village gongkeeper, which is currently held by his father (DeVito). Quite by accident Migo overshoots his gong target and discovers a world beyond the mountain’s edge, which the stones describe as a vast nothingness. Migo witnesses an airplane crash and a smallfoot pilot parachuting from the wreckage. Yet when he tells the villagers about his experience and his sighting of the mythic smallfoot people, the Stonekeeper (Common) banishes him from the community for contradicting its precepts. Wandering alone, Migo discovers the secretive Smallfoot Evidentiary Society, led by the Stonekeeper’s own daughter Meechee (Zendaya). In the human village below the clouds, Migo makes awkward friends with Percy (Corden), the preening television host of a nature show, who is struggling between his desire for fame and his ideal of integrity. (Corden’s lyrically reworked version of the song “Under Pressure” is a hoot.) Migo brings Percy back to the yetis to prove his assertion about the existence of the smallfoot, but the society’s center cannot hold amid the revelation of these new truths. The Stonekeeper shares with Migo the origins of the yeti myths, which were formed as self-protection against the human enemies who sought to capture and kill the gentle giants. And true enough, some rough encounters between the human and the yeti occur later in the film. A police barricade even separates the two groups at one point, trading on images recently popularized during the notorious contretemps in such places as Ferguson, Mo., and Charlottesville, Va.
Smallfoot also features some excellent physical comedy, some of which calls to mind the sight gags prevalent in the old Looney Tunes cartoons once produced by this studio (Warner Bros.). The yetis’ hairy appearance is a marvel of swaying fur, made all the more miraculous by the color gradation that allows the generally white creatures to be vividly seen against the snow and ice, although this perhaps caused some of the color inconsistencies that occur from scene to scene. (LeBron James’ big purple yeti may lend him some extra cred when he newly arrives at the L.A. Lakers sporting team colors.) All is not perfect about the way Smallfoot solves its social problems, but a kids' film that puts the lie to the Stonekeeper’s assertion that “What’s true and not true is in the eye of the beholder” is a work that carries an unexpectedly keen contemporary message.