DreamWorks Animation made its feature debut with a famous attempt at scooping its competition: The studio’s animated comedy about ants (Antz) beat Disney and Pixar’s animated comedy about ants (A Bug’s Life) to theaters by six weeks. This was followed by other selected instances of supposed parallel thinking (Shark Tale and Finding Nemo; Megamind and Despicable Me), so it’s not shocking that with Abominable, DreamWorks has produced one of three different yeti-centric feature cartoons. But it is a bit of a surprise to see DreamWorks trailing the others so substantially, releasing its round, smooth-nosed creature into the wild a year after Smallfoot and six months after Missing Link. It’s also surprising that Abominable feels like a soft reset of the whole antic, intermittently inspired, sometimes shameless DreamWorks deal.
Abominable is the studio’s first cartoon in six years that isn’t based on a book, toy, or other pre-existing property, and though it’s not wildly original in either plot or style, it hasn’t been blueprinted within an inch of its life, either. This despite the strong resemblance that the movie’s yeti (Joseph Izzo) bears to How To Train Your Dragon’s Toothless, particularly in their shared wide, Cheshire Cat smiles. On the run from an ominous testing facility, the beast bounds around Shanghai, where he encounters teenager Yi (Chloe Bennet) on the roof of her apartment building. Yi has been dealing with the death of her father by spending her school holiday at an endless series of odd jobs, earning money to take the cross-country trip her dad had promised her.
In short order, Yi decides that she will help this yeti find his way back to Mount Everest, the location he recognizes from a billboard and becomes his namesake. Yi and Everest are joined by Yi’s materialistic and phone-obsessed neighbor, Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), and his excitable little cousin Peng (Albert Tsai). They’re pursued by the wealthy industrialist Burnish (Eddie Izzard), who wants to prove to the world that the yeti is real, and his reluctant helper, the zoologist Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson). Though there are the usual frantic chases, bad-guy henchmen, and good-guy squabbling, the conflicts of Abominable aren’t as artificially goosed as those of many contemporary cartoons, which still hew closely to the Toy Story model of mismatched-buddy dynamics. Even when they’re at odds, these characters have a certain gentility and breathing room. Even Burnish is more oblivious than teeth-gnashingly evil; struck by the beauty of a particular tree in the wild, he blithely orders his men to cut it down and bag it up for his later enjoyment.
That gag is indicative of the movie’s sense of humor: a little more droll and a little less relentlessly jokey than frequent DreamWorks watchers may expect. Writer-director Jill Culton seems confident that she can capture the attention of kids and their parents with actual filmmaking. She uses point-of-view shots to introduce Everest, a low-dialogue montage to introduce Yi, and absolutely no “yep-that’s-me” expositional narration. It’s also enjoyable to see DreamWorks get out of the shiny, plastic-y suburbs in favor of more visually diverse locations, from Shanghai rooftops to literally rolling green hills.
In terms of fantastical creatures who make friends with cartoon children, Everest doesn’t have a personality as distinctively animated as Toothless or Stitch. He reveals that he’s blessed with the awe-inspiring powers of convenience—magical abilities that get the characters out of repeated scrapes and create set pieces at regular intervals. At their best, these scenes do have the whimsical lilt of magic, specifically of magic created by animation studios outside the U.S. studio machine.
Abominable doesn’t gather the momentum of its best moments into a powerful emotional punch; lessons are learned swiftly, almost to the point of triviality, and Yi’s grief, as played here, falls somewhere between subdued and perfunctory. Subdued, at least, isn’t such a bad thing. It’s notable that Yi and Everest don’t really bond as How To Train Your Dragon-style best friends; it’s Peng who really becomes Everest’s playmate, with Yi serving in a more parental capacity. The movie is gentle enough for younger kids, but doesn’t feel obligated to play straight to a 5-year-old’s sensibility. For the first time in a while, DreamWorks seems to be trusting its filmmakers with a semi-original idea, rather than racing breathlessly to the finish line.