Smallfoot opens with a blast of narrated exposition from Migo (Channing Tatum), an enthusiastic Yeti who essentially pitches the movie that’s about to unfold. Migo explains that he’s a resident of a snowy mountain village whose residents have a belief system, carved in stone, that forbids them from dipping below the clouds. He further explains that every morning, one Yeti must launch himself across the village in order to strike a gigantic gong whose noise causes the sun to rise. And he explains that he is training to take over this job from his father (Danny DeVito).
This has become standard in big-studio animation—not complicated mythology involving a Yeti village, mind, but the idea that the most expedient way to convey information to young audiences and their impatient guardians is all at once, with the convivially faux-casual tone of a video tour. Parents and guardians conscripted into Smallfoot might remember a time when filmmakers would take advantage of the medium at hand and open with a catchy expository song instead.
The weird thing is, Smallfoot has an opening song, too, agreeably carried by Tatum. The kinda-musical’s four tunes are divided equally among an eclectic vocal cast, giving Tatum, Zendaya, Common, and James Corden one apiece. (Sadly, Danny DeVito’s pipes go unused.) But Smallfoot doesn’t always trust the music’s ability to move the story along, so the movie proceeds in fits and starts as Migo crosses paths with a human pilot and, when he reports this encounter without evidence, gets banished by the Stonekeeper (Common).
His banishment is met with doleful looks from the Stonekeeper’s daughter, Meechee (Zendaya), which is odd because she has to this point exchanged a grand total of zero lines of dialogue with Migo. For a movie heavy on exposition, Smallfoot soft-pedals the introductions of several key supporting characters, including the Meechee’s crew of rebel Yetis, who believe Migo’s sighting and secretly plot against the established orthodoxy that considers small-footed creatures a myth. The group sets out to help Migo find a human and prove that he isn’t a liar, which brings them to a reporter (Corden) desperate for clicks.
Is the Yeti group’s mission against its society’s mindless conformity or in favor of lunatic-fringe conspiracy theories? Obviously the movie lands more or less in favor of facts (spoiler: humans do exist) triumphing over the gaslighting and fake news espoused by the Stonekeeper—but not before a big song from Zendaya muddies the waters by extolling the virtues of, essentially, listening to your gut. (Maybe lyrics about clear-headed critical thinking and source evaluation sounded too clunky.) Then again, the unintentional ambiguities of this song are nothing compared to the unambiguous malevolence of a scene where tireless professional nuisance and musical irritant James Corden raps over the melody of “Under Pressure.” Somehow, despite the setting and the white rapping, it’s not a cover of “Ice Ice Baby.”
This probably makes Smallfoot sound like more of an endurance test than it really is. As animated by Sony (confusingly, it’s a farm job for Warner Animation Group, as was Storks), the noseless, swollen-teardrop faces of the Yeti characters are appealing, and there’s some inventive cliffside slapstick worthy of the movie’s Warner Bros. ancestors. The human/Yeti language barrier—humans sound like buzzy mosquitos to the Yetis, and Yeti dialogue sounds like fearsome growling to the humans—is a neat logistical challenge. Common’s big musical number is a late-breaking highlight. And Smallfoot mostly avoids the major contemporary-animation pitfalls, going light on excessive pop culture jokes (its most notable movie quote is from Tod Browning’s 1932 classic Freaks) and refusing to make smug fun of its own status as a musical. But it’s still mostly just a time-passer for younger kids—and, absent a strong point of view, as much of a hedged bet as its narration-and-song opening.