Abominable movie review: a bit of a snow job

part of my Directed by Women series
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Abominable yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Lovely animation and gentle, kid-pitched life lessons can’t quite overcome the familiar feel of this E.T. retread, nor the forced sense of wonder that is more convenient crutch than anything organic.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about girls and women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female codirector, female screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

In an unnamed Chinese city, a teenaged girl, Yi (the voice of Chloe Bennet, who is Chinese-American, yay!), discovers a yeti hiding on the rooftop of her apartment building. The creature, an escapee from a government research lab, is more cuddly than fearsome — more the love child of Sesame Street’s Snuffleupagus and Monsters, Inc.’s Sulley than an abominable anything — and Yi resolves to take the monster safely home to *checks notes* Mount Everest.

The dramatic landscapes of China are gorgeously rendered…

Okay, then.

Even grading on the curve of children’s animated adventure fantasies, Abominable isn’t overly concerned with plausibilty even within its own context. I mean, either Everest is so remote and inaccessible that the existence of its indigenous animals is pretty protected, or a woefully unequipped teenage can just stroll up there. Difficult to have it both ways.

There are charms to this DreamWorks film, from writer and director (with Todd Wilderman) Jill Culton, her second feature after 2006’s unexpectedly delightful Open Season. It’s great to see a nonwhite female protagonist, especially one as full of a spirit of adventure as Yi, and a nonwestern setting; the Chinese landscapes that Yi and her kid neighbors Peng (the voice of Albert Tsai) and Jin (the voice of Tenzing Norgay Trainor) travel through with the yeti are gorgeously rendered. There are gentle lessons to be learned about grief and family — Yi’s father has died, and she’s very sad — that are handled with poignant tenderness. And the yeti himself, whom Yi dubs Everest (whose nonlanguage verbalizations are provided by Joseph Izzo: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) is genuinely cute.

…as is the delicious food.

Yet the plot is basically aping that of E.T., with Nai Nai’s (the voice of Tsai Chin: Now You See Me 2) delicious bao standing in for Reese’s Pieces, and scientist Dr. Zara (the voice of Sarah Paulson: Glass) after the yeti for reasons that may or may not be nefarious, but which will certainly keep Everest from returning home to his family. And the film strives so much for wonder that it becomes a crutch, a convenience that never feels organic: the yeti can do literal magic, harnessing the power of the natural world when useful by the story, or for a bit of kiddie-style humor. (A sequence featuring blueberries made enormous by Everest’s power recalls Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, but it’s nothing but a sidebar.)

When the movie was over at my packed-with-kids weekend-morning screening, a little boy behind me of perhaps five or six announced loudly and with great delight: “That’s the best movie I’ve ever seen!” I didn’t doubt his sincerity, only his film-watcher’s tally. He was probably the best audience for a movie like Abominable: it’s amiable enough, but it doesn’t strenuously attempt to overcome its familiarity.

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