RATING: ★★ 1/2
Since its founding in 2013, the Warner Animation Group has found its niche in the ever-expanding world of animated children’s movies as the zany, slapstick studio. While other newcomers seem eager to imitate Disney’s brand of sentimentality and wonder, WAG prefers to load its films with silly characters, Looney Tune visual gags, and so many jokes per minute it often takes multiple viewings to catch them all. Their debut film, Lord and Miller’s The LEGO Movie remains one of the greatest family movies of the decade for its joke density and glorious embrace of the weird. While three of the five WAG releases are LEGO tie-ins (as are their next two), they recently branched out to original properties, thanks to a partnership with Sony Pictures Imageworks, which led to 2016’s better-than-expected Storks and their most recent release Smallfoot.
In several ways Smallfoot is a step forward for Warner Animation Group as they seek to find their place in the massive world of corporate animation – there is more slapstick and lengthier visual gags, which were a delight to the many children in the theatre. However, in more ways Smallfoot was a step in the wrong direction – the jokes are fewer and often referential (meaning they’ll feel oh-so-dated when you catch this movie on television in five years), the characters are much less silly (no one goes all out like Stephen Kramer Glickman did in Storks), and while the number of songs is increased, none are particularly noteworthy or important to the story (and certainly none are more memorable than the phenomenal “Zendaya is Meechee” by comedian Gabriel Gundacker).
The world in Smallfoot takes place atop a high mountain where a secluded village of yeti have an idyllic existence with an essential job for everyone, overseen by a sort of religious leader called Stonekeeper (Common). Etched stones have been sent to the yeti that give basic principles on how to live – sacrifice to the snail gods, ring the gong at sunrise, never ask questions – stuff like that. When one eager young yeti (yetus? Is yeti plural for yetus?) names Migo accidentally encounters a human being, which the legends call “smallfoot” – he reports his findings and is immediately ostracized from the community. With the support of a small gang of smallfoot truthers, Migo embarks into The Nothing (the bottom of the mountain) to find and retrieve this mythical creature and clear his good name.
At the bottom of the hill is the attention-starved Percy, a nature-show host whose ratings have plummeted in a world of viral videos and sensational stories. Percy concocts a plan to fake a yeti (yetus) encounter, but is even more delighted when a real one comes along instead. Percy narrates the entirety of his encounters with the yeti while recording on his amazingly battery-efficient smart phone.
From here the story goes pretty much exactly how you expect, which is not necessarily a detriment. The message of two societies who fear one another learning to co-exist despite the risks is not original, but it’s important and it was well-handled in a final scene that demands we see the best in others in order to bring out the good in ourselves. If the movie would have been content on delivering that message supported by a plethora of jokes, it would have been a more successful film than what we got. Instead Smallfoot spends a lot of time forcing Migo and others to question why their society is structured around some rules etched into ancient stones, then abandons any thoughtful examination of that idea. Granted, an exploration on the dangers of a religious autocracy might be a little too complicated for a children’s movie, but then why set it up in such detail? The binary conclusion that the stones are either the god’s honest truth or entirely lies felt lazy and unexamined.
The technical elements of the film worked well with animation as detailed as we have come to expect from major studio animated films, but nevertheless gorgeous and impressive. The human characters have a similar shape to other Sony Pictures Imageworks films like Hotel Transylvania or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The few overhead shots that swept over the entire yeti village or the human town were incredible and easily the visual highlights of the movie.
There were no particular standouts in the voice cast which continues the obnoxious trend of major animation studios hiring huge stars, many of whom aren’t even actors, and more or less having them play themselves while the animators do all the heavy lifting. Channing Tatum and James Corden are both good singers, which helps bring the songs to life. Lebron James and Jimmy Tatro make amusing minor appearances and Common and Danny Devito both seem to be phoning it in with muted performances. Oh, and in case you forgot – Zendaya is Meechee.
Karey Kirkpatrick and Jason Reisig directed Smallfoot, and they based the story loosely (very loosely) on Sergio Pablas’ book Yeti Tracks. Karey Kirkpatrick also wrote the score along with his Grammy-winning brother Wayne Kirkpatrick and the songs are pretty forgettable, besides a particularly bad cover of Queen’s “Under Pressure.” There is one anthem by Zendaya that might snag an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, simply because it’s often a sparse category. However, the likelihood of an average person remembering any of the music moments after the credits rolls is unlikely.
Bottom Line: Smallfoot is plenty silly, but it doesn’t seem interested in utilizing its vocal cast or putting much effort into its ideas.
- None yet!
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