A third film about yetis in the breadth of a year? What an abominable coincidence. From Open Season director Jill Culton, this one barely stands out from the crowd of its own sub sector, never mind the broader schematic of family orientated cinema. And yet, there’s no denying the concrete surety that its heart is in the right place. Nor, that its earnest charm is a winning asset. Give or take the odd nod to modernity, this is as traditional a tale of friendship and self-discovery as ever there were. Abominable is never better than when dialogue gives way to music and melody casts aside division.
As is so often the case, the film yarns the journey of a bereaved child from self-imposed isolation to acceptance and familial pleasures. Structurally, Abominable echoes Big Hero 6 as much as Smallfoot and offers more than fleeting echoes to a raft of classics from Spielberg’s epochal classic E.T. onwards. Chloe Bennet voices Yi, a precociously musical teen whose banal life of chores and solitude is transformed on her meeting a yeti atop the roof of her apartment. As you do. Two things quickly become clear. First, it is obvious that initial perceptions – we meet the yeti through video game perspective, with the implication being that he is dangerous – are not always just so. Remember that for later. Second, there is an instantaneous bond between girl and yeti, one that will take them far: ‘I don’t know where you came from but you sure don’t belong here.’
With meek British zoologist Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson) and her animal collecting hoarder of a boss Burnish on their tail, Yi and the yeti, whom she names Everest, embark on a quest to get him home…to Everest. Along for the ride are neighbouring cousins Peng (Albert Tsai) and Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) – one immature, the other pruning – not to mention the rebellious spirit of adventure. Stops along the way will mirror the symbolic journey Yi had once planned to embark upon with her father, whilst Everest will increasingly demonstrate his own brand of mind-boggling abilities.
It’s hard not to recall Howl’s Moving Castle as the gang surf a rising tide of enchanted earth. Music is essential to this strand of the film, with Culton respecting the power of a well held note to transcend difference. Composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams – younger brother of fellow under-sung maestro Harry – Abominable’s score is gorgeously wholesome, throughly moving and a language unto itself. It is a highlight scene of the film that first unites Yi and Everest without a single word shared between the two.
While the Asian setting and Chinese heroine of Abominable might lead one to the understanding that this is a film apart from the average American toon, Hollywood homogeneity will out. The film opens in Shanghai and climaxes in Tibet but the culture and vocal intonations are predominantly Western. It is as though the only thing Culton took from Domee Shi’a masterful Pixar short Bao is that Chinese people enjoy steamed buns. Similarly indistinct are the film’s all too typical beats. Young viewers will love Everest – his burping and clumsy heft delight – but parents would be well advised to note that Abominable occasionally feels long, in spite of its brief runtime. It is hard to believe that any will remember the film well in five years time any better than Smallfoot and Missing Link. By comparison, who can forget the minor cameo by Pixar’s yeti in Monsters Inc? That was eighteen years ago.
At least the voice at the heart of Abominable speaks with admirable integrity. In an age where the endangered species list grows my the week, it is pleasing to note here the subtle pushing of an environmentally astute agenda. Whereas Burnish sees the world and wants to own it, to preserve it in glass, the lesson we can all learn is that animals too have families and dream also of home. Our volition is to share, protect and nurture, not to possess. Perhaps Culton borrows too much of prior films in her efforts but she gets away with it. Just.