The best thing about the otherwise-abominable “Smallfoot” is the concept: A community of creatures feared by humans — in this case, yetis with giant, bendy bodies and silky CG hair — consider people to be just as frightening, with both sides going far out of their way to avoid the species they don’t understand. That’s a solid idea now, and that was a solid idea when the folks at Pixar came up with it 24 years ago. The problem is, “Smallfoot” is not a Pixar movie. It’s the latest offering from Warner Animation Group, which essentially takes the hook for “Monsters Inc.” (hatched way back in 1994) and turns it into a heavy-handed civics lesson.
According to the credits, “Smallfoot” is based on a book called “Yeti Tracks” by Sergio Pablos, the brain behind “Despicable Me,” but there is no trace of the book’s existence online. In fact, it’s easier to prove Bigfoot’s existence than it is to find a copy of the apocryphal “Yeti Tracks,” which was more likely a concept pitched and then retooled many times over on its way to the screen — a perfectly normal process in animation that sometimes results in delightful future classics (“Despicable Me” is a great example) but more often goes very, very badly, as in Warner Animation Group’s own “Storks.” Frankly, between “Storks” and “Smallfoot,” one is inclined to question the development process at a studio that turns simple, good-on-paper ideas into inelegant, needlessly complicated cartoons.
Co-written and directed by Karey Kirkpatrick (a DreamWorks Animation vet currently basking in the success of recent Broadway hit “Something Rotten!”) with story help from “This Is Us” producers John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, “Smallfoot” begins by establishing the elaborate belief system upon which its primitive yeti society is based — assumptions that kids will find funny on the basis of how silly they sound: The yetis accept that they were pooped from the butt of the great sky yak, that their mountain sits on the backs of many woolly mammoths, below which there is only nothing (a comic variation on the Cosmic Turtle myth), and that the sun is a giant glowing snail that travels across the sky, rising only when awakened by a giant gong. These rules and many others are literally set in stone and worn around the neck of a Moses-like wise man known as the Stonekeeper (Common), who enforces such ignorance by banishing anyone who questions the rules.
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Later we will learn that this “myth-information” campaign was designed to protect the yeti population from the dangers of humankind, who live at the base of the mountain, according to the view that it is in our nature to hunt, kill, or torture any animal we don’t understand — which is a pretty cynical view of humanity to push in a kids’ movie. In any case, parents would do well to anticipate some uncomfortable conversations after the movie about the validity of whatever faith they’ve imposed on their own children.
The hero of “Smallfoot” is a compliant yeti named Migo (Channing Tatum), son of resident gong ringer Dorgle (Danny DeVito), who joins his bigfoot brethren in singing, “If there’s a question causing you to go astray / just stuff it down inside of you until it goes away” — a noxious ditty whose wink-wink lyrics suggest something from the gleefully blasphemous “The Book of Mormon,” set to a thoroughly generic pop beat. Expanding on their “Something Rotten!” musical theater experience, Kirkpatrick and his brother Wayne wrote the songs for the movie, and they’re pretty much all in this vein: intermittently clever and thoroughly annoying, unfolding across jokey montages of the yetis’ high-altitude high life — which looks pretty idyllic until Migo accidentally comes in contact with a “smallfoot,” getting himself kicked out of the community when he refuses to recant his story.
As a species, the yetis look a lot like albino Wookies with better hair — much better hair. In fact, these creatures have some of the best computer-animated hair you’ve ever seen, doubly impressive once you consider that for most of them, it’s white, and therefore something of a rendering challenge (though some are pastel-hued, like Gwangi, the woolly purple yeti voiced by LeBron James). If there were a way to mute “Smallfoot” and just stare at all that hair, blowing in the wind or settling naturally around the heads and shoulders of its shaggy ensemble, audiences would already be in for a far more mesmerizing experience — like a feature-length Vidal Sassoon commercial.
Alas, the bigfooted characters have big mouths, too, and these yetis sure love to yammer in what inexplicably sounds like surfer-dude dialect. In one of the movie’s most inspired jokes, when Migo finally tries to communicate with a smallfoot, the human’s voice comes across as a tinny, high-pitched squeal, while yeti speech sounds to human ears like a deep, menacing growl. What doesn’t make sense is why the smallfoot whom Migo first sees way up on the mountain isn’t the same one he winds up bonding with when he ventures below the clouds to clear his name. It’s as if somewhere along the film’s development process, the team scrapped its original concept and instead decided: What if a species with no experience with homo sapiens were forced to base all its assumptions on the most obnoxious person in the human race?
Enter James Corden’s character, an unscrupulous nature-show host named Percy Patterson who’s this close to dressing his producer in a sasquatch costume as a ratings stunt (he tries to sell her on the idea in a spectacularly awful musical number performed to the tune of “Under Pressure,” an insufferable riff on Corden’s hit “Carpool Karaoke” series that’s the worst thing to happen to the classic Queen anthem since Vanilla Ice) when a real yeti ambles up and introduces himself. Cartoons have given us some pretty grating goofballs over the years, but Percy takes the cake, turning the rest of “Smallfoot” into an endurance test — one that’s not aided in the slightest by the script’s equivocating sense of how to deal with the two species’ discovery of each other’s existence.
Kirkpatrick’s answer: more songs, a chase scene, and redemptive moments for both Migo and Percy, followed by group hugs all around. It’s messy and distressingly unmemorable, which is a shame since there are no shortage of great Looney Tunes-level gags wasted along the way, including an ingenious rope-bridge sequence worthy of golden-age Warner Bros. animation. If “Smallfoot” proves anything, it’s not the existence of yetis, but the need for a fresh alternative to such lazy storytelling. As the movie itself scolds: “It’s not just about tearing down old ideas. It’s about finding new ones.”