Film Review: ‘Abominable’

DreamWorks attempts to recapture the magic of the 'How to Train Your Dragon' franchise with a new mythical beast — this one covered in fur.

Abominable
DreamWorks Animation

After descending Mt. Everest in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary received worldwide acclaim as the first westerner to reach the top — and also snickers for alleging to spot yeti footprints and hair in the snow. Seven years later, Hillary returned to the Himalayas to prove his claim. He saw nothing — but he’d see himself in writer-director Jill Culton’s “Abominable,” a serviceable cartoon about aged ice-pick-brandishing explorer Burnish (voiced by Eddie Izzard) determined to catch and display the mythical creature for no better reason than to silence the jeers.

The latest offering from DreamWorks Animation gently alights on the fragile male ego. Yet its main interests are twofold: flog a new beast to supplant the successful “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise (here, the monster is Toothless the Night Fury with fur — as in, he’s basically a cool dog) and please its Chinese partners with an Asian travelogue that treks from megalopolis to Yangtze to Gobi to a 233-ft tall cliffside Buddha carved during the Tang dynasty.

The adventure is all part of a quest by three youngsters — Yi (Chloe Bennet of TV’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”), Peng (Albert Tsai) and Jin’s (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) — to escort the preteen yeti they’ve dubbed Everest back to the peak that shares his name. The journey is wondrous for the characters, less compelling for the audience, who take several mental detours when the film calls back other kids’ movies people would probably rather be watching, including a scene with giant blueberries straight out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

At least the film begins with a bold p.o.v. of Everest breaking out of a holding facility run by Burnish’s zoologist Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), a self-proclaimed animal lover who wears a big-eared rodent like a pirate wears a parrot. Everest meets Yi on the roof of the apartment building she shares with her mom (Michelle Wong) and grandmother (Tsai Chin), the latter of whom is so short she startles people by popping up behind a plate of dumplings. Yi’s childhood friend Jin, a vain med student who nods to China’s burgeoning upper middle class, and his dorky cousin Peng live one floor underneath, but Yi has disengaged from family and friendship. Since her father’s death, she’s worked odd jobs to visit the landmarks he wanted her to see. Luckily, each spot is en route to Mount Everest, give or take a thousand miles.

The figures are pleasantly distorted in defiance of the trend toward naturalism. Yi has eyes like teacups and ankles like Clydesdales. And at least Culton grants her Abominable Snowman the power to control nature, like a steroidal E.T. Once he closes his eyes, hums, and glows mint green, he can even make the earth ripple — a travel tip the gang uses less often than it should in its escape from Dr. Zara and Burnish, the type of naturalist who’d capture a rare snake and imagine it as a belt. As revenge, said reptile, the fictional Whooping Snake, steals the movie, even inspiring a much-appreciated ’90s rap joke that will soar over every kid’s head. (If you remember Tag Team, you can probably guess the gag.)

“Abominable” has a checklist of moral lessons it aims to impart: love your family, take fewer selfies and play the violin (a gift bequeathed by Yi’s dad). In the film’s most moving scene, Yi plays a solo so powerful it summons rain, flowers, and the Coldplay hit “Fix You.” It’s a fascinating musical mashup that starts with a Christian-style organ playing over the image of a famous Buddhist religious site that gives way to a pop mega-hit. For an aspiring blockbuster, that culture clash is the cash-grab holy trinity. That Culton might eke out a tear is a bonus.

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Film Review: ‘Abominable’

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations), Sept. 7, 2019. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 97 MIN.

  • Production: (Animation) A Universal Pictures release and presentation of a DreamWorks Animation, Pearl Studio production. Producers: Suzanne Buirgy, Peilin Chou. Executive producers: Tim Johnson, Frank Zhu, Li Ruigang.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Jill Culton. Co-director: Todd Wilderman. Camera (color): Robert Crawford. Editor: Pamela Ziegenhagen. Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams.
  • With: Chloe Bennet, Sarah Paulson, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Albert Tsai, Eddie Izzard, Tsai Chin, Michelle Wong.
  • Music By: