Dreamworks is kind of in a weird place. Their prize series– Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon, and Madagascar– have all reached their conclusions. Kung Fu Panda 4 has yet to manifest, as has the long rumored Shrek 5. After a string of financial failures, The Boss Baby was their biggest hit in years. Illumination, with its inescapable Minions, seems to have taken Dreamworks’ place in the animation conversation. There was a twenty month break between Captain Underpants (a financial disappointment) and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (which suffered multiple delays before finally being released this February). The actual subject of this review, an original film called Abominable, is their last non-sequel for at least two years. It is also a Chinese co-production with Pearl Studio, takes place in China, and stars a Chinese teenage girl. Cynically, Abominable could be read as a last-ditch attempt by Dreamworks to make millions of dollars in Chinese box office, even if the domestic audience mostly shrugs. However, the film is sincere and warm enough to make me think this was a genuine attempt by Dreamworks to tell a story outside their regular white-comedian-based genre. Also important: directed by Jill Culton, it is one of the very, very few animated films helmed by a woman. While it never reaches the heights of How to Train Your Dragon (how could it?), Abominable is a cute adventure for kids with stunning visuals and action sequences. And it features an adorable baby yeti with magic powers.
Yi (Chloe Bennet) is a busy teen who lives with her mother and grandmother in Shanghai. Her Nai Nai wants her to slow down, but Yi is determined to raise money in order to take the cross-country trip her recently deceased father never got to go on. Her plans are interrupted when she finds a baby yeti on her roof, who has escaped from a lab run by a scientist (Sarah Paulson, doing a lot) and a rich former explorer (Eddie Izzard, who is not). She names the yeti Everest and promises to get him home to his family. Her neighbors, basketball-obsessed Peng (Albert Yi) and his older, ‘cool’ cousin Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), end up along for the ride, with the villains hot on their trail.
The kids and Everest take a scenic tour of China as the yeti shows off his magical ability to communicate with nature. There’s a gigantic dandelion, a wave of blueberries, and magic vines galore. The story, though slim, does a good job focusing on Yi’s attempt to process her father’s death and rediscover her love of playing the violin. One of the most emotional scenes takes place on the hands of the Leshan Giant Buddha statue (perhaps the first time I’ve seen Buddha in an animated film?). It never gets too dark for kids, despite one scary encounter on a bridge where Yi is placed in mortal peril. Everest doesn’t speak, so he never runs the risk of corny one-liners – though Jin contributes to that from time to time. It’s just nice, and my six-year-old godson had a great time.
Dreamworks movies are more interesting when they are sincere. Dreamworks is better when it’s not just a warped reflection of whatever Disney/Pixar is doing. Abominable, with its Chinese setting, cast, and female director, doesn’t deserve to be written off as lesser, especially compared to the Minions.
Dir. Jill Culton
Now playing everywhere (though the Hassle recommends the Capitol or your local mom & pop cineplex)