High up in the Himalayas, above the constant cloud cover, the village of Yetis has lived, always, by the laws set in stone. Myths about tiny creatures with terrible intent has been a part of folklore – daddies tell their babies, “Go to sleep or you will be visited by “Smallfoot.””
I had little to go on walking into a Saturday morning kids’ promo screening of “Smallfoot.” Posters make it look like frigid version of Whoville, but with 18-foot tall furry Yetis. What I got was an extremely clever clash of culture/species as we meet the characters that populate the story.
Migo (Channing Tatum) is the heir to the coveted job of Gong Ringer, an official function that his father, grandfather and all his ancestors before have performed to awaken the sun every day. During a practice session – which entails being catapulted, head first, into a giant gong – Migo is distracted by the beautiful princess Meechee (Zendaya) and misses the mark.
He is hurled far away, near the cloud line, and he sees a disturbing thing – a plane crashes and its pilot floats down under a parachute. Migo realizes, to his horror, that he has found a mythical Smallfoot! The creature gets away and Migo rushes to the village with the news, but he is shouted down by the Stonekeeper (Common). The laws, cast in stone and worn by the Keeper, say that there is no such thing as Smallfoot. Migo must deny the existence or be banished. He refuses to lie and is driven away from the village.
I think I will stop right there with the story description. What could have been a straightforward kids' animation, with cuddly furry creatures and lots of innocuous songs and silliness, is the opposite. I will say that there is a Smallfoot, in the guise of ambitious nature show TV host, Percy (James Corden), who crosses paths with Migo.
Co-directors Karey Kirkpatrick and Jason Reisig use the reversing roles idea to turn the lens on ourselves with our current condition of race hate, bigotry, false idols and fake news. In this Warner Animation world the Yetis are the sentient beings in their world and we humans are creatures of myth. The reversal gives us pause for thought.
As one expects, there are a plethora of musical numbers that ring generic, which I expected and sat through. But, there are a couple of songs that I actually noted and enjoyed – Percy does a number that re-lyrics Bowie’s “Under Pressure” and Common’s “Let It Lie” gives a succinct history of why Yetis avoided humans.
The kids will enjoy the critters and songs, but the humor evinced throughout “Smallfoot” is squarely aimed at parents and adults like me (no kids). There are several extended visual gags that are straight out of the creative genius that gave us “Looney Tunes.” When I laughed at these visual, humorous delights, I was not the only adult in the audience doing so. I give it a B.
Migo (voice of Channing Tatum) lives high above the clouds in a community of Yetis where he hopes to follow in his father Dorgle's (voice of Danny DeVito) footsteps as their Gong Ringer, the man who awakens the great glowing snail which crawls across the sky to light their days. They know this is true because it is (literally) 'written in stone,' as is everything they live by, all guarded by the Stonekeeper (voice of Common). But when he overshoots the gong on a practice catapult, Migo falls far down the mountain, crossing paths with a human pilot ejecting from his crashing plane. Astonished by what he's seen (as is the pilot), Migo hurries back to report to the village, where he's promptly banished for disagreeing with the stone which says there is no "Smallfoot."
One has to endure a Yeti village that bears a remarkable resemblance to Whoville, a couple of thoroughly insipid musical numbers and a wide variety of yeti visualizations that distinguish different characters while challenging general conceptualizations before "Smallfoot" begins to take flight. Even then, it does so sporadically, not fully coming alive until the last twenty minutes of its running time, and its heady messaging about myth making in order to control the masses may fly over the heads of its target audience. Thankfully, cowriter (with Clare Sera)/director Karey Kirkpatrick ("Over the Hedge") has more than one idea to impart, including fear of those unlike ourselves, the importance of ethics, challenging authority and openness to change.
Once banished, Migo sets off to find his Smallfoot and is astonished to discover the Stonekeeper's daughter Meechee (voice of Zendaya) heading up the Smallfoot Evidentiary Society along with Gwangi (voice of LeBron James), Kolka (voice of Gina Rodriguez) and Fleem (voice of Ely Henry). Although quiet in the village, they believe his story because they've been gathering evidence outside of its borders, exhibiting Smallfoot 'skin' (a parka), something they believe is akin to their horns (a ski pole) and a 'scroll' (a roll of toilet paper). Meechee is convinced that although the stones decree their world floats on a cloud beneath which is 'nothingness,' that the Smallfoots actually live below and Migo bravely agrees to be lowered on a rope and pulley system. Alas, as he's dangling in the air, along comes Meechee's brother Thorp (voice of Jimmy Tatro) and a panicked Gwangi lets go of the rope.
Meanwhile, down below is failing wildlife television commentator Percy Patterson (voice of James Corden), beside himself over the story he's heard from that crashed pilot. He begins pressuring his producer Brenda (voice of Yara Shahidi) to don a yeti suit and stilts, leading to some confusion when he eventually comes face to face with Migo. After their initial fright, they begin to try to communicate, difficult as Migo hears Percy's voice as tiny insect buzzing whereas Percy hears his as monstrous roars. Migo wraps Percy against the cold and brings him back to his village, but despite everyone seeing the Smallfoot with their very own eyes, the Stonekeeper takes Migo aside and explains to him just why he must side with the 'truth' of the stones.
While the character animation is uninspired (why do these yeti have no noses?), Kirkpatrick pays homage to the physical comedy of Wile E. Coyote, uses video gaming for visual gags and gets inventive with interspecies misinterpretations. Tatum's voice lends Migo some of the actor's lovable lug characteristics, but few of the rest of the cast stand out. Common's gently friendly tones seem an odd fit for the Stonekeeper, although it was Kirkpatrick's intent to not make the character villainous. Patricia Heaton voices a disturbed Mama Bear. The film's musical selections are generic pablum, with the exception of Common's rap 'Let it Lie' and Corden's rendition of 'Under Pressure' with new lyrics.
If one goes digging, "Smallfoot" has a lot to say, but its sluggish pacing blunts its impact. It does go out with a rousing finale, though, one which celebrates truth and open mindedness.
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