It takes chutzpah for an animated family film from a major studio to raise issues that might ruffle some parents’ feathers the way “Smallfoot” does. It’s a pity the movie does so in an overall package that proves a decidedly mixed bag, interesting in some narrative respects and technically strong but hobbled by mediocre songs and one especially irritating character.
The script, adapted by director Karey Kirkpatrick and Clare Sera from a story idea derived (by him, John Requa and Glenn Ficarra) from a book by Sergio Pablos, concerns an isolated tribe of Yetis—abominable snowmen and snow-women—living atop a fog-shrouded peak, presumably in the Himalayas (though the town at the foot of the mountain hardly indicates that). They’re a happy bunch, as the big opening musical number “Perfection,” which feels designed for a future Broadway production, proves.
They are, however, bound by a strict set of beliefs dictated by “the stones,” which are kept by the imperious Stonekeeper (voiced by Common). These stones define the community’s cosmology: they were squeezed out of the butt of the great sky yak, the mountain they inhabit is located on the backs of woolly mammoths, and beneath the cloud cover obscuring the lower mountain there is sheer nothingness—especially not the little mythic creature called smallfoot.
This creates a bit of difficulty for Migo (Channing Tatum), a big, likable lug who’s the son of Dorgle (Danny DeVito), the gong ringer—part of the stones’ teaching is that the sun is a huge luminous snail that must be awakened each morning by a fellow who sounds an enormous gong by being hurled headfirst into it by what amounts to a Yeti-sized slingshot. (No wonder he’s peculiarly short.) On one of his jaunts Migo encounters a flying machine that crashes, and a smallfoot comes out of it before running off in terror.
When he reports the encounter to the tribe, Migo is denounced as a heretic and banished. (It’s all part of the Yeti philosophy, which—as expressed in song—follows the “Book of Mormon” rule that if an idea or feeling bothers you, just “turn it off.”)
But Migo finds some unlikely allies—a trio of “stone skeptics” who are part of the S.E.S. (the Smallfoot Evidenciary Society: the Stonekeeper’s daughter Meechee (Zendaya), bushy, purple Gwangi (LeBron James) and diminutive smart-aleck Kolka (Gina Rodriguez). They help him descend into the cloud cover, where he encounters a whole town of smallfeet.
But the one he latches up with—and eventually brings home as evidence—is Percy Patterson (James Corden), the smarmy host of a nature TV show so anxious to boost ratings that he’s willing to fake footage of a Yeti. In dealing with the Yetis Percy inevitably mellows and becomes their pal. Migo is challenged, however, when the Stonekeeper reveals to him the real reason behind the mythological B.S. he’s charged with maintaining, and our hero must decide what’s best for the tribe—to keep up the façade that’s protected them from human aggression, or spearhead a campaign that will basically come down to “Can’t we all just get along?” You don’t have to be a genius to predict which route he’ll eventually choose.
There are good things in “Smallfoot.” The animation is colorful, and the opening half-hour features some fine slapstick routines for Mingo and Dorgle reminiscent of old Looney Tunes bits. (More recently this sort of stuff was most prominent in the Scrat material of the “Ice Age” franchise.) The voicework is generally good, though Rodriguez’s Kolka might prove irritating (the fault more of the writing than her, it must be said) and Corden is incredibly aggravating until his character settles down a trifle. And for some, though not all, the lesson that you shouldn’t take what your elders tell you at face value—even in terms of accepted “religious”beliefs—will come as curiously refreshing. (Others, however, might find the idea that a kidflick is pushing such a notion positively horrifying.)
Otherwise, however, things are not so rosy. The songs, for example, range from ordinary (“Perfection”) to overly insistent (Meechee’s “Wonderful Life,” which strains to be another “Let It Be” clone) to simply dreadful (the Stonekeeper’s gloomy “Let It Be” and Percy’s appallingly frantic “Under Pressure”).
Worst of all is the major emphasis placed on Corden’s Percy in the movie’s second half. He’s initially one of the most intolerably hyperactive boobs ever to grace a picture like this (which is saying a lot), but even after he becomes more likable, Corden’s playing of him is so over-the-top that listening to him is positively exhausting—as is the whole action-packed redemptive chase sequence he’s given in the big finale. (To be fair, there’s one good gag about how the Yetis and humans hear—or mishear—one another, even if it’s repeated too often.)
So even as one might want to cheer on “Smallfoot” for taking on some pretty sensitive matters given its target audience, and for its skillful technical execution, it forfeits its potential with mediocre musical numbers and a human character more grating than agreeable.