Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Review: "Abominable"

I was not expecting much out of “Abominable,” because it seemed like such a mishmash of ideas from other animated kiddie flicks. But then I took the movie on its own terms, and found something quite wonderful indeed.

It’s the same studio behind the “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise, and there’s a similar theme of a young person forming a spiritual connection with a seemingly ferocious wild beast. There’s the “going on a quest to an exotic locale” bit from “Up.” Heck, they even borrowed that film’s villain, an ancient explorer who wants to bag the mythical creature to silence the naysayers.

For crying out loud, we just had two other yeti animated films earlier this year: the middling “Smallfoot” and the underwhelming “Missing Link.” So “Abominable,” featuring yet another bigfoot character, arrives as the latecomer to this well-worn party.

Despite the overly familiar themes, I found “Abominable” absolutely enchanting. It’s a magical and musical journey that starts out as fun ‘n’ games and by the end will burrow into your soul. I found myself humming the main soundtrack theme (courtesy Rupert Gregson-Williams) on the way home, and for hours after.

Set in China, it is the story of Yi (voice of Chloe Bennet), a Shanghai teenager who is disconnected from her family. Her father died some time ago, and she’s obsessed with raising enough money to go on the tour of the country he always imagined. She plays his violin on the roof of their building, and one day discovers a huge, white furry creature.

It sort of resembles the head of the dog-dragon from “The NeverEnding Story,” with a massive lower jaw and fist-sized teeth that practically touch its wide eyes. Voiced by Joseph Izzo as a series of growls and hums, the creature does not speak but is clearly intelligent and kindly. Based on its reaction to a billboard for Mount Everest, Yi determines that this is his home, and resolves to help him get back there. Everest also becomes his name.

Tagging along is a pair of downstairs neighbors: Peng (Albert Tsai), a basketball-obsessed kid of about 12, and Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), a narcissistic playboy about Yi’s age. It seems they were fast friends as children, but these days Jin is more concerned with his hair and clothes, and getting as many “likes” as possible for his constant social media posts.

(As with “Smallfoot,” the battery life of smartphones depicted here is truly astonishing.)

The bad guy is Mr. Burnish (Eddie Izzard), an ancient tycoon who captured Everest. Burnish first encountered a yeti as a young man. Laughed at for his claims, he was preparing to present Everest to the authorities when he escaped. Assisting Burnish is Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), a benevolent scientist who only wants to study the yeti for scientific purposes (she says).

(It’s a little fuzzy why they couldn’t immediately take some video of Everest and text it over to the explorer honchos, but that’s the sort of logistical knots one has to look over.)

Writer/director Jill Culton (“Open Season”) brings a wonderful sense of pace and space, as the foursome make their way across all sorts of Chinese landmarks like the Gobi Desert with the bad buys in black suits in pursuit. After a while, the story becomes less about the chase-chase than finding the spaces within our own hearts that we have left closed for too long.

Everest also displays magical powers, evoked by deep-throated humming that can manipulate nature in increasingly wondrous ways. A dash across a rippling ocean of marigolds is a particularly memorable.

A lot of movies telegraph what they’re going to be all about, especially entertainment geared toward families. You go into something like “The Secret Life of Pets” knowing exactly what you’re going to get. Even when it’s done well, there’s a tang of discontent from expectations met.

“Abominable” is a most unexpected and surprising thing, a retread that feels new and exhilarating.

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