This year at the Toronto International Film Festival, the buzz was big for star-studded crowdpleasers like Hustlers, Knives Out, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, and Jojo Rabbit, which won the fest’s audience award. But the buzz around Dreamworks’ yeti adventure, Abominable didn’t even earn a dull roar as much as a grumble. Written and directed by Jill Culton, this is a dedicatedly cute movie with uplifting themes of female empowerment, community, and compassion. But it’s not much beyond that.
Part of the problem is that Abominable feels like an earnest but sloppy hodgepodge of more exciting and already acclaimed movies. Like ET, its story centers on a kind-hearted kid befriending a lost, fantastical creature. But instead of American boy Elliot finding an alien hiding in his family’s shed, Chinese tomboy Yi(Chloe Bennet) finds a yeti hiding on her apartment building’s rooftop. Like Hiccup in How To Train Your Dragon, she will go on a wild adventure across breath-taking terrains to save her new monster friend from those who would destroy him. Like Missing Link or Paddington, they will be tracked by a merciless hunter, who wants nothing more than to taxidermy the rare creature. And even this yeti’s design seems snatched. In an opening escape sequence, the barreling abominable monster resembles the rampaging beasts of Attack The Block, though the reveal of his blunted teeth and big blue eyes admittedly makes him cuddlier.
All this makes for a movie that feels fresh in only two respects: it’s setting and heroine. Instead of another white boy (or Anglophile bear), Abominable centers on a Chinese girl, who runs breathlessly all over Shanghai doing odd jobs, from babysitting, to pug-walking, to dumpster duty for a seafood restaurant. On the surface, it seems Yi’s doing all this work to save up for a big trip across China, something she dreamed up with her late father. But filling her days with activities also allows her to run from her grief, as well as avoid her home where her mother and grandmother fret and make dumplings. When Yi impulsively decides to run away to take this yeti—that she’s named Everest—back to his home—which is Everest—she finds another excuse to flee. But as just her pesky neighbors, vain Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and playful Peng (Albert Tsai), tagalong, Yi pain won’t be left behind.
There are moments where it seems Abominable will try to be a delicate tale of dealing with death and grief. Yi’s love of the violin and her fascination with travel comes from her father. So scenes where she plays music or pouts over his postcards tug at the heartstrings as they allow her to reconnect to his memory. But much like its heroine, this movie rarely slows down enough to let these emotions sink in. It’s got too much else going on.
Enter Sarah Paulson as a perky biologist, and Eddie Izzard as a roaring, pick-ax wielding trophy hunter, and a trio of slapsticky minions, and a snake that goes “WHOOP!” This quirky crew will chase the kids and their yeti over crystal waters, down lush valleys, and up icy mountains. And along the way, there’ll be jokes about cola, giant blueberries, and silly sounds. There’ll also be the discovery that Everest has magical powers that allow him to bend nature to his will in any way that services the plot most conveniently. Plus Yi will reconnect with her estranged childhood friend, which allows for a slapdash subplot that manages to chastise kiddos for being too into selfies and cellphones. Why not stuff one more life lesson in while we’re at it?
In the end, Abominable is a mess, but a charming enough one. The story is meandering and convoluted. But the computer animation offers adorable characters and beautiful vistas. The voice work is spirited. And little kids will likely enjoy this goofy yeti, who burps, rolls over like a dog, and chuckles like a gruff but lovable uncle. The might be thrilled by the action sequences that involve floods of flowers, attacking drones, and rampaging giant blueberries. On that level, Abominable is fine. But playing against some of the most thrilling, most moving, most daring movies of the year, this cute kids movie can’t compete.
Abominable made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theaters on September 27th.