For some reason, three animated family features about the mythical yeti were released during the last year. Either because of warring studios trying to one up each other, sheer coincidence, or some movie biz symmetry that lies in between, Hollywood has a tendency to spit out very similar properties into production from time to time. Whether Armageddon/Deep Impact or AntZ/A Bug’s Life, examples abound, but even so, three very similar films is an anomaly. That said, if you only have time for one animated yeti flick, Abominable certainly has a furred leg up over Smallfoot and Missing Link. The film offers a fun, emotionally resonant, colorful adventure that wisely adds magical powers to the yeti mythology in order to take full advantage of various beautiful and awe-inspiring set pieces.
That’s not to say it treads new ground—Abominable is yet another family adventure about a self-sufficient and smart child protagonist struggling with grief from losing a parent, who learns to find newfound appreciation of life and youth through a friendship with an adorable fantasy/sci-fi creature. At this point, it’s moot to complain when family fare like this uses the same premise. It’s so prevalent in the genre, it’s basically a template, so what really matters is execution, not originality. In that sense, there aren’t any surprises in Abominable, but the ride will nevertheless prove invigorating and satisfying to many.
Yi (Chloe Bennett) is a talented violinist who gave up on music after her violinist father passed away. She ignores her friends and family in order to jump from one day job to another so she can save enough money to go on trips that her and her father planned before his passing. During one of her daydreams about her trips, she comes across a yeti, basically depicted here as a white furball with giant blue pupils in order to achieve cuteness overdrive, hiding from a mean corporation bent on using him as a glorified freak show attraction. (The E.T. doctrine necessitates that Yi and the yeti freak each other out at first, only to warm up to one another in the next scene.)
Determined to protect the yeti, now dubbed Everest, from the corporation’s claws, Yi decides to take him all the way to Everest to be reunited with his family. Yi’s estranged friends, hyper basketball fan Peng (Albert Tsai) and image-obsessed social media hound Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), unwillingly end up in Yi’s mission as the long journey from Shanghai to Mount Everest begins. As the team tries to survive the wilderness while escaping the clutches of the corporation, Yi’s deepening personal connection with Everest naturally blossoms into her regaining her love for music as well as a newfound appreciation for family and friends.
What I especially love about Abominable’s approach to characters and culture, especially as a Hollywood release, is in writer/director Jill Colton’s insistence on using all Chinese characters in the story, instead of going The Karate Kid remake route and shoehorning an American protagonist into the script just for the sake of “western relatability.” The three central child characters reference western culture the way kids around the world do, but they’re also connected to their own culture and traditions just as strongly. With fully Chinese characters speaking in American accents voiced by Asian-American actors, a nice and balanced trade-off takes place in a way that makes these characters universally relatable while also giving non-Chinese children a respectful window into this culture.
Everest’s magical powers—he can control the natural elements around him—comes in handy when our heroes are cornered by the bad guys and sets up gorgeous set pieces, but it also creates a bit of an issue in narrative stakes and consistency. (Everest’s ability to summon his powers at will takes out some of the stakes and tension for the protagonists, and leads to a story structure that teeters on episodic.) Still, I was pleased by the subversion of some antagonist tropes. This includes the head of the corporation, a cranky old English villain named Burnish (Eddie Izzard), who initially comes across as a bland rip-off of Charles Muntz in Pixar’s Up, complete with the occasional trailer-ready “I want my yeti!” lines.
Abominable may not offer much when it comes to a unique premise, especially after two other features have beaten it to the punch, but it’s nonetheless a wholesome bit of family fun with an impressive focus on themes of overcoming grief, propped up by a visual feast.
Director: Jill Colton
Writer: Jill Colton
Starring: Chloe Bennett, Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Eddie izzard, Sarah Paulson, Tsai Chin, Michelle Wong
Release Date: September 27, 2019
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.