There was a time when yetis were presented on screen as fearsome creatures—as in “The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas” (1957) with Peter Cushing, or—to choose a really horrible example—Jerry Warren’s hilariously bad “Man Beast” (1955). But first in last year’s “Smallfoot” and now in this new joint effort from DreamWorks and China’s Pearl Studio, the snowman has become a cuddly, misunderstood animated fellow. Even his cousin, “Missing Link,” was—in Laika’s superior movie of earlier this year, a gentle soul.
Where did this change originate? Without doing too much research on the subject, perhaps it was with Chuck Jones’s Bugs Bunny-Daffy Duck cartoon “The Abominable Snow Rabbit” of 1961, where he was depicted as Hugo, a goofy lug who called everyone George. It’s a good Looney Tunes of its vintage, and along with “Link” the best of the bunch.
Not that “Abominable” is all that bad, certainly not as terrible as the ill-chosen title might suggest. Like “Smallfoot,” it’s a colorful, innocuous piece of animated fluff that delivers nice messages without being at all special—in other words, a middle-grade kidflick.
The heroine of writer-director Jill Culton’s screenplay is Yi (voiced by Chloe Bennet), a spunky girl living in a Shanghai apartment with her mother (Michelle Wong) and diminutive grandmother Nai Nai (Tsai Chin). She is secretly working multiple jobs in hopes of saving up enough for the trip across China she was planning to take with her father, who has recently died. Her most prized possession is the violin she inherited from him, which she plays—beautifully, of course—atop the apartment building, where she keeps her belongings—sort of a fiddler on the roof, you might say.
It’s there that she has an unexpected visitor—a young yeti that’s escaped from the rare animal collection of cranky old explorer Burnish (Eddie Izzard), who intends using the creature to prove the existence of yetis—a belief that’s brought him years of ridicule. The animal’s disappearance just as Burnish intends to unveil him leads the old man to order his personal zoologist Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), who pretends to be interested in protecting rare species but actually plans to exploit them, to track the yeti down and return him to captivity.
Naturally after bonding with the yeti, whom she dubs Everest, Yi determines to help him return to his mountainous Himalayan homeland. They will not, however, be travelling alone. They’ll be accompanied by her downstairs neighbors, cousins Peng (Albert Tsai) and Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor). Peng’s the younger of the two, an endlessly energetic basketball nut despite his short stature, while Jin is an ultra-smooth high-schooler who’s forced to join the trio because he’s responsible for Peng. But his real interest is in being impeccably groomed, taking a plethora of selfies, and protecting his cool sneakers from getting dirty (naturally he won’t succeed). Jin will, of course, mellow and join in the adventure with determination as it goes along, learning what’s really important in life.
The journey—none too surprisingly—takes them to all the locales that Yi had intended to visit with her father. Along the way the makers show us some remarkable Chinese sights, like the light show on the The Bund, the riverside promenade, in Shanghai, and the enormous statue of Buddha at Leshan.
They also invoke magic. The closer Everest gets to his home, the more powerful become his abilities. He’s ordinarily like a big, white puppy, but he can glow in colorful hues and, as he moans, turn a field into a forest of foliage that generates giant blueberries, or an ocean of flowers into waves that rush forward like swells surfers can only dream of. When Yi takes out her violin and plays, there’s potent magic to her music-making as well.
Needless to say, the kids get Everest to Everest, where he’ll be reunited with his kind, though Burnish and Zara, after a series of near-misses, will catch up with them just in time to threaten them at the last bridge they literally have to cross. Happily one of them has a change of heart and helps them complete their mission. (The other apparently perishes, but none too graphically.)
In the end “Abominable” plays it safe, coming across like a slew of predictable ingredients—a cute-as-the-dickens lead critter, a bunch of heroic kids, some not-very scary villains, pretty music and even prettier visuals, a heaping helping of sentiment, a few nice lessons about family and friendship, and a mostly bland serving of humor—rolled into a package that’s easily digestible but, in the end, pretty formulaic despite its exotic setting. Kids under ten or so will probably enjoy it; older folks will be tolerant but unenthusiastic.