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Review: Yeti-meets-man comedy 'Smallfoot' reaches for complexity, but falls short

Warner Bros

Warner Bros

It’s obvious from the outset that the makers of Smallfoot wanted to tackle new territory.

The man-meets-yeti animated comedy opens from the perspective of Migo (Channing Tatum), a young yeti living at the peak of a Himalayan mountain, and positions humans as mythological creatures. The approach is novel; whether the movie succeeds is up for debate.

Migo explains to the audience that he and his yeti compatriots have carved out a pretty idyllic existence up in the clouds, working together to make the town run and finding great satisfaction in their (seemingly nonsensical) labor. Migo loves it, but he soon learns that ignorance is bliss.

The yetis don’t ask too many questions about life, deferring instead to a set of infallible laws carved in stones by yeti chiefs of the past and present. The stones state, among other things, that there is nothing below the clouds, that the sun is a giant snail that must be awoken each morning, and that the creature known as a “Smallfoot” is just a fable. So when Migo, a dutiful adherent to yeti law and lore, stumbles upon a real-life smallfoot (human) out in the wild, his world begins to unravel.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the mountain in a Nepalese town, a faded-glory Steve Irwin type named Percy Patterson (James Corden) decides to throw away any remaining integrity he has and fake a yeti sighting. But it isn’t too long before he finds himself face-to-face with the real thing.

Smallfoot looks and feels like something geared toward younger children, but it becomes surprisingly complex as it moves along. That’s not necessarily a good thing here. While nuance is always appreciated in a kids’ movie, the ideas being relayed will likely go way over the head of the target audience. The crowd of abnormally restless toddlers and preschoolers at the early screening speaks to that. And if nobody is receiving the message, can it be that effective?

Broadly, this is a story about the importance of curiosity and questioning the world, but Smallfoot is also arguably a treatise against organized religion. It’s not antagonistic by any means, and the movie is actually pretty understanding when it comes to religion’s role in society at one point in time. Nevertheless, religion comes off as an antiquated system that may no longer give the answers we need.

Such anti-religious overtones are pretty uncommon in any major American film, let alone a kids’ movie, so it is nice to see the outlook being represented. But the young moviegoers much preferred watching the screwball, Wile E. Coyote antics, opting to run around like disinterested maniacs during the many scenes of existential questioning.

You can’t wholly blame the filmmakers for their ambition. In theory, Smallfoot’s themes could have worked, and it’s not wholly terrible: Tatum is wonderful as always and there are some tender moments. It’s just the pacing, some lackluster jokes, a couple of truly awful vocal performances, and a handful of songs that may be some of the most odious in kid movie history—and that’s saying something—that make for a mediocre outing.

Kudos to Warner Animation Group for trying. The bones are there, which makes it all the more clear that Pixar could have done this same story 10 times better.