Film Review – Abominable
One often used trope in family and animated films involves a protagonist befriending an outsider, usually of the fantastical variety. The earliest iteration of this I can remember was the friendship born between Elliott (Henry Thomas) and the alien in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). But oh, this has been recycled more times than one can count. Just off the top of my head, I recall The Iron Giant (1999), Lilo & Stitch (2002), Big Hero 6 (2014), and Pete’s Dragon (2016). The adventures between a young person and a magical being is a tried and true formula.
But it’s a formula that often works. The set up allows us to connect directly with its inherent theme: two different perspectives finding common ground with one another. Dreamworks Animation nearly perfected this dynamic with their How to Train Your Dragon series. The studio has tried their hand at the blueprint once more with Abominable (2019). This time, we have a young Chinese girl named Yi (Chloe Bennet) developing a connection with a white-haired Yeti, making it her mission to help it return to its home on Mt. Everest.
This is a very cute and sweet tale. Directors Jill Culton (who also wrote the screenplay) and Todd Wilderman paint the story with sincere brushstrokes. While what we get isn’t all that new or innovative, the narrative does take a very earnest approach, never delving into cynicism. Yi lives in a small apartment with her mother (Michelle Wong) and grandmother (Tsai Chin) in what appears to be Hong Kong. Yi wishes to go out on her own and to see the world. She takes odd jobs to make enough money to travel, but once she finds the Yeti – as well as those trying to capture it – she decides to expedite things and go on her trip early. Along the way, her next door neighbors Peng (Albert Tsai) and Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) join her.
The animation is vibrant and colorful. The rendering of the Yeti’s fur is so intricate you can see almost every individual hair strand. Even more impressive is how the animators capture the various real world environments and backdrops of China. There’s the neon lights of the big city, the steps and pathways of what appears to be Huangshan Mountain, and the famous Leshan Giant Buddha statue. The way the filmmakers incorporated these tangible places allows the film to set its own cultural identity.
When it comes to a fantasy adventure featuring a Yeti, certain liberties have to be taken to push the plot forward. I’m not so sure anyone has ever seen a Yeti in person, so we can’t say what they can or cannot do. Culton and Wilderman may have taken advantage of this idea a little too far, granting the Yeti such overwhelming magical powers that it removes any kind of tension or suspense. With just a low hum of its voice, the Yeti will suddenly glow like a genie, providing Yi, Peng, and Jin anything they need to survive. When they’re hungry the Yeti will grow dozens of blueberries to fill them up. When they need to escape danger it will call upon the wind to whisk them away to safety. The Yeti’s powers are never defined, so it comes off as a narrative cheat, a quick solution to whatever problems the youngsters face.
On a character level, each of the kids are given plenty of unique characteristics. Jin is the popular pretty boy, whose life is marked by social media, his well combed hair, and crisp new shoes. Jin gets a dose of hard reality when he has to get down and dirty while on the trip. Peng is the youngest, whose sole desire is to have a friend to spend time with. Luckily for him, the Yeti becomes something of a surrogate brother the longer they interact. Yi’s development has mostly to do with her lost father, who had given her his violin as a sign of their connection. While Yi longs to go out and see the world on her own, her violin acts as a small reminder of a family that cares for her.
Oh sure, there’s a bit about a rich old man (Eddie Izzard) and his scientist underling (Sarah Paulson) who want to capture the Yeti for their own dastardly purposes. But none of that has the same kind of emotional impact as the more intimate relationships between the kids and the Yeti. In fact, the only memorable element of the villain roles is that Paulson’s red-haired scientist looks almost identical to Princess Merida in Brave (2012). It’s as if the animators took Merida’s initial design and flipped it just slightly enough so as not to be a complete copy.
I don’t know if I’ll ever have the desire to see Abominable again, but in the moment I enjoyed what it had to offer. It may follow an often-traveled path in terms of story, but it has such good intentions that it’s hard not to fall for its charms. It does everything a family film should do – and that’s totally fine with me.