Film Review: Smallfoot

With a masterful blend of comedic mayhem, witty wordplay, inventive sight gags and great use of an exotic world, this hilarious animated feature distinguishes itself with a powerful theme about questioning orthodoxy.
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The word "beautiful" may not be the first that springs to mind for an animated feature about monstrous creatures in a harsh environment, and a financially strapped nature-show host desperate enough to propose a journalistic mortal sin. Yet beautiful is the apt description for this hilarious masterpiece that embraces reason, celebrates truth and ultimately believes we're civilized enough to accept both—all while piling on Warner Bros. cartoons' trademark blend of wordplay and slap-shtick and offering a subtly subversive message about questioning orthodoxy.

Hidden in the Himalayas is a self-contained society of yeti, a.k.a. abominable snowmen, a subsection of that cryptozoological species Bigfoot. Migo (voice of Channing Tatum) loves his little world of families, marketplace stalls and an industry devoted to carving ice balls that are rolled down tubes to ostensibly feed the mastodons on whom their mountain rests. While the yeti-folk can't see the mastodons because of a thick cloud layer just below their village, that's OK—they take it on faith. Tall, trim and almost cuddly, Migo wants only to succeed his dad (Danny DeVito) as the bell-ringer whose sounded gong makes the giant shiny snail in the sky rise each morning. Or at least, all this is the process outlined in the etched stones worn by village leader the Stonekeeper (Common).

When an accident sends apprentice ringer Migo soaring past the gong—the ringing of which involves a slingshot device and the bell-ringer's head—he meets a mythical "smallfoot" when a plane crash-lands in a snowfield. A gust of wind whooshes the parachuted pilot away and nature hides all the other evidence, so no one believes Migo's sighting except a trio of heretics (Ely Henry, LeBron James and Gina Rodriguez) led by Meechee (Zendaya), the Stonekeeper's daughter. Banished for insisting he was telling the truth, Migo ventures into the outside world to find a smallfoot and clear his name. He soon encounters Percy Patterson (James Corden), the aforesaid floundering TV personality, on the outskirts of a city evoking Kathmandu. Through ingenious scripting and plotting, the two, who can't understand each other's language, eventually manage to communicate. But not without misunderstandings. Let's say the suckling-pig scene is especially funny, as it doesn't involve a pig.

Directed and co-written by Chicken Run screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick—purportedly based on the unpublished book Yeti Tracks by animator Sergio Pablos, whose own website says only "based on an original idea by"—Smallfoot revels in classic silent-film storytelling and Chuck Jones-style physical mishaps, particularly involving a rope bridge and anything and everything that can fall. The friendly-monster creatures are less menacing than even the Bumble of the Christmas-TV perennial "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and Migo vaguely recalls the once-popular Nauga doll, the marketing mascot whose shed hide was said to give us Naugahyde. While a couple of the heretics are broadly drawn, every main character, including Percy's conscience-stricken producer (Yara Shahidi), is distinct and necessary, with heart and personality. Even the antagonistic Stonekeeper does what he does for a reason, as highly questionable as it may be, with no evil intent. Yet the Utopian song that opens the picture is rightly foreboding, since the powers-that-be will go to any length to perpetuate the lies that keep its citizens under control.

Those powers-that-be are more benevolent in Smallfoot than in real life, and indeed, the film is remarkable in that it advocates questioning the ruling order—specifically, with the conceit of rules literally written in stone a la the Ten Commandments, questioning religious orthodoxy. "If it goes against the stones, it can't be true," one yeti says, and eventually another realizes that "if one stone is wrong, others could be as well." In today's America, in which a faction at the highest level wants to impose Christian Sharia, such thoughts are heresy. In today's America, that makes this a daring movie for kids both brave and smart.