Director: Jill Culton
Writer: Jill Culton
Starring: Chloe Bennet, Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Eddie Izzard, Sarah Paulson, Tsai Chin, Michelle Wong
It’s good to be back. Not just me as a reviewer. It’s good to see DreamWorks back and at it with an attempt at a new IP after closing the curtains on their flagship franchise How to Train Your Dragon earlier this year. It’ll be quite the challenge to deliver something as expansive, gripping, and sophisticated as that was. What’s on offer is a charming selection of familiar tropes with some exotic flourishes and slight departures from standard directions to keep the inexperienced moviegoers on their toes. Did I just describe what could amount to a Dragon spin-off? In a way, yes, but that was just to get you to read the rest of the review to see what I mean. I’m so clever.
Violence/Scary Images: It briefly looks like a character has fallen to their death off a mountain. Burnish’s henchmen shoot tranquilizer guns at Everest and chain and cage him; they also capture the children. Two people are swept off a mountain. The Burnish team chases Everest and the kids through cities and various Chinese landmarks. Sillier slapstick violence includes falls, trips, and giant blueberries that burst in the kids’ faces. A parent’s death is discussed.
Language/Crude Humor: None.
Sexual Content: Mentions of Jin’s many girlfriends. Some girls are shown flirting with him. Lingering looks between teens Yi and Jin.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: Irresponsible child endangerment.
Positive Content: Audiences will learn a bit about geography and Chinese/Himalayan landmarks. Promotes teamwork, close family relationships, honoring your parents, defending and protecting your friends, and recognizing the value of life.
Look, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with playing it safe. In fact, “safe” may be the wisest decision to make in many situations, as it can be argued that it is better to have a middling success rather than an impressive failure. It can also be argued that the well-regarded animation studio DreamWorks is currently in just that kind of position at the moment.
For about a decade now, the team that gave us Shrek (and with that, the death of hand-drawn animation in many people’s estimation), has been coasting on the nearly effortless bravado of the How to Train Your Dragon name in both big-screen and small-screen productions. Sure, other impressive feats have dotted their filmography in that same time span, but be honest, are your kids still going out of their way to rewatch Rise of the Guardians or The Croods?
With the final chapter of Hiccup and his reptile compadre now closed, one is right to wonder where the studio will go from here in order to continue fastening the same level of ardent commitment from kids, their parents, and the socially inept online twenty-somethings that make a regular habit of injecting an unhealthy amount of unease to the once innocent practice of identifying as a member of this fanbase. Tumblr is a dangerous place at times.
The answer DreamWorks has given comes in the form of Abominable, a charming if not grindingly familiar adventure tale with some respectable flourishes of visual splendor and an easily digestible arrangement of story beats that should keep the younglings entertained for the duration of the runtime. The ones in my local viewing were having a blast at least.
Writer-Director Jill Culton, an undercelebrated talent in the animation arena who’s been working diligently since the early 90s, weaves for us a screenplay I was immediately eager to write off as “Studio Ghibli does E.T.” (I held off on the “Ghibli” marker until I made certain that a magical flying sequence was presented). Taking place in the unusual setting of modern-day urban China, we are first introduced to the toyetically designed yeti who serves as the beacon of innocence/MacGuffin that will most likely adorn many a bed pillow this holiday season in plush toy form.
This yeti, later affectionately named “Everest” after his place of birth, befriends our young spunky heroine Yi (half-Chinese Chloe Bennet) after a chance encounter on her apartment rooftop. It is immediately established that this yeti is on the run from a well-armed private militia of poachers, and so Yi makes the determination to personally escort Everest back home while also fulfilling her desire for a cross-country expedition that she had planned on taking with her late father. As far as lead characters go, I could easily conjure up a far worse idea than Yi. She’s hardworking and diligent, a musical prodigy, and much more emotionally and mentally stable than one would imagine a girl her age with a recently deceased father would be.
I was quite appreciative with how unassuming and casual Abominable is with its less commonplace flourishes. Yi is never openly championed as a Strong Independent WomanTM archetype despite her numerous brushes with death and bravery in the face of nature’s pitilessness. The distinctly Chinese setting feels completely genuine and natural, as though it was as good as any other more easily recognizable setting. With that said, one could make the legitimate complaint that taking the cultural embellishments a bit further into the fabric of the narrative would have been a welcome potential improvement.
Disney-Pixar’s Coco went full ham in crafting an emotionally gripping story that could only be told through a specifically Mexican lens, utilizing the folklore and traditional trappings in a manner that accentuates and gives clarity and heft to the outlandish story on hand. A huge part of me wishes that Abominable had gone in this direction a bit further; one detached from conventional reality and incorporating more distinctly fantastical elements of Chinese folklore into what is already a functioning fantasy epic in all but name.
Abominable operates on one level as something like a virtual tourist attraction crossing many well-worn Chinese landmarks, such as vast rice fields, staircases installed into the faces of mountains, and a momentous emotional showstopper in the bosom of a giant Buddha statue. But as with actual tourist attractions, the ultimate takeaway is more exotic photo-ops rather than a full engagement with the nuances and existential ramifications of the culture’s ideological, existential, and philosophical morays.
One wonders if some inspiration from Journey to the West wasn’t left on the cutting room floor for how the story and characters develop and arrive at their denouement? Yi could be seen as a genderbent representation of Tang Sanzang, being a somewhat enlightened youth eager to embark on a voyage of “transcendence and persuasion for good will.” She’s also accompanied by a furry creature with magical powers who can ride on clouds, a pudgy lad named Peng (Albert Tsai) who’s not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, and a refined young beau named Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) who gets grislier and more weather-worn as the plot thickens. Maybe there was more research done than what comes across in the final product.
Just because the meal is familiar in its ingredients and arrangement, doesn’t mean it isn’t appreciable in its delivery. What’s served up here is nothing groundbreaking, but it is still praiseworthy in the essentials. In addition to some very impressive visual displays of wonder and splendor, Abominable does some things with its plot and characters that I wasn’t expecting. There’s a swapping of antagonistic characters that plays upon many established tropes and archetypes common in these types of stories. In fact, one thing that the film does exceptionally well is character development. No one here ends in the same place where they began. For that reason, at least, a sequel would be wholly inappropriate here. I guess as far as replacing the Dragon franchise is concerned, DreamWorks still has a lot of work to do.
+ Impressive visuals + Great virtual China tour + Defies character tropes
- Borrows a great deal from far better films - Mostly wooden performances - Superficial in its cultural inflections
The Bottom Line
None of this is unfamiliar, but it’s done well enough to suit the palate.