First Thoughts on Abominable (2019)

*All reviews contain spoilers*
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{As this is a new film, be aware there may be a few spoilers.}

 

{A small note for my regulars: See the end of this review for an update on the Laputa article}

Well, it’s been a while, but we’re finally getting back on track! Now – do you remember back in 1998, when Antz and A Bug’s Life came out a few months apart and everybody went “Hey, wait a minute…”? That was just one of the most infamous cases of a recurring problem in animation, where every studio seems to latch onto a particular story element or theme and a string of suspiciously similar films are pumped out before the trend dies. This phenomenon of “duelling movies” can be traced all the way back to Snow White and Gulliver’s Travels in the 1930s, but it continues to this day with films like this one – for Abominable is only the latest in a bizarre run of “getting the cryptid back home” films we’ve been seeing at the tail end of this decade.

The film, originally titled Everest, is the work of director Jill Culton and co-director Todd Wilderman, featuring a refreshingly diverse cast including Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Tsai Chin, Michelle Wong, Eddie Izzard and Sarah Paulson (as well as a cameo role for the excellent James Hong). The lead is played by half-Chinese Chloe Bennet, whose heritage matches that of the film itself; it was a co-production by the American DreamWorks studio and its Chinese subsidiary Oriental DreamWorks, although during production China Media Capital actually bought out NBCUniversal’s stake and renamed the company Pearl Studios, so it seems Abominable will be their last collaboration.

Abominable_(2019_poster)

It should be noted that this production seemed to endure a similar problem to that of 2012’s Brave, with director Jill Culton departing from the project for unknown reasons in 2016 and being replaced with male “co-director” Todd Wilderman, although unlike Brenda Chapman, she was able to return to the helm in 2018 before production was completed. (I do hope this didn’t have anything to do with #MeToo unpleasantness, since DreamWorks generally has a better track record for diversity behind the camera than Pixar).

On the casting side of things, what first got me interested in this film in the first place was hearing that Trainor, who plays the character Jin, is actually the grandson of Tenzing Norgay himself, one of the two men who first summitted the real Mt. Everest back in 1953. Perhaps his casting in this could thus be considered nepotism, but it’s so cool that I honestly don’t care; when your granddad has done something that incredible, I think you’ve earned the right to appear in a film or two!

Although the concept for Abominable had me interested from the start, back when it was called Everest, I must admit that I felt some reservations creeping in as the marketing machine got started leading up to its release. Even in the trailers, it was starting to look like another generic mid-tier DreamWorks effort aimed solely at little kids, so I wasn’t sure whether to bother with it after all. On top of that, I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrows at the sheer number of cryptid films we’ve been getting lately – Son of Bigfoot, Smallfoot, Missing Link and now this? Give it a rest, people!

Still, once it arrived I decided to give it a go… and to be honest, it was almost exactly what I was expecting in every way. Breezy and quick, Abominable can be summed up with the word “bland”, since it takes no risks at all and simply cruises through all the predictable story beats that you’d expect of a standard family film. It may be that I’m just too jaded, but the emotional “moments” in the story felt so telegraphed and rushed by so quickly that none of them really landed; it’s hard to sympathise with Yi’s grief for her late father when it feels like such a calculated choice, something we’ve seen countless animated protagonists go through in countless films before. Still, Abominable’s heart is in the right place even if it is just going through the motions, so at the risk of sounding too damning about what is really a harmless and ineffectual little film, let’s get into some specifics.

Despite the formulaic writing, I will admit that the lead three child characters are alright. Nothing sensational, but fine. Yi, a young Chinese girl who brings some much-needed diversity to the big screen, reminded me distantly of Tiana in her establishing moments. Like her, Yi is also painted as a practical and hard-working girl, with her motivation stemming from the loss of her father who instilled those values in her. In Yi’s case, however, she is not trying to fulfil some latent career ambition of her dad’s but is instead trying to make enough money to finance a dream trip across China that they had planned together, which is actually quite touching.

Tiana cooking with father

This is perhaps the greatest impact Abominable had on me, in that it made me consider The Princess and the Frog in a new light. Was Tiana’s obsessive workaholic nature perhaps a means of staving off her grief over her dad, in the same way that Yi is doing with her many time-consuming jobs? It’s certainly an interesting angle to see the protagonist of a kid’s film having to learn how to cope with grief, although I can think of numerous films that handle it better (like The Land Before Time, for instance).

Yi connects with her father’s memory not through cooking but through music, as the violin he left her is her most prized possession. To symbolise her emotional constipation, we’re told that Yi has not been able to play it since is passing, finding it too painful – her arc thus ties into her journey with “Everest”, the yeti she finds on her roof one night, as his presence gradually brings down her walls and allows her to play her violin once again. That is one of the film’s only truly affecting scenes, as the catharsis she experiences finally gives her an outlet for expressing her grief, which in turn brings her closer to the rest of her family, who have also felt cut off from her since the loss (tellingly, the violin music connects her with them as well, because she used to like playing for them and starts to do so again only after her experience with Everest).

ABOMINABLE
Everest, the Yeti, with Yi (Chloe Bennet) in DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio’s Abominable, written and directed by Jill Culton.

Yi is certainly a determined and admirable protagonist who strives to fulfil her own goals, but like many young people of today, she sometimes forgets to make time for her family, so she’s not perfect. I can’t find any real flaw with the way she’s presented; kids can take away some good lessons from the way she handles things, she has no love interests at all (thank goodness) and she’s no Mary Sue or anything like that, but I can’t help feeling like most people won’t remember her a few days after seeing the film. This is the problem; like the film overall, Yi isn’t particularly distinctive. She feels like a product, an amalgamation of every desirable trait in a modern animated protagonist, doing everything right but never doing anything unexpected or interesting.

ABOMINABLE
(from left) – Peng (Albert Tsai), Everest, Yi (Chloe Bennet) and Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) in DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio’s Abominable, written and directed by Jill Culton.

So, how are the rest of the cast? About the same, if we’re being honest. All serviceable, all filling their roles and hitting the required beats in their arcs, but rarely standing out or making an impact. Jin, for me, was a bit of a scene-stealer with his understated comedy; he goes through some development as his preppy city mouse façade is gradually stripped away, learning to appreciate the people in his life more than the material things, but the same can’t be said for his cousin Peng, who is simply the comic relief. He’s likeable enough aside from his grating puberty voice, but his only notable contribution is befriending Everest, who is on the same wavelength when it comes to maturity. (I suppose he does also give Jin someone young and vulnerable to feel protective over).

ABOMINABLE
The Yeti, Everest, in DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio’s Abominable, written and directed by Jill Culton.

The yeti himself, dubbed “Everest” by Yi because of his homeland, is also not very noteworthy. He’s just your standard cuddly thing that looks like he’s been designed purely to sell toys, with an anatomy so implausible that I found myself wondering how this creature was supposed to breathe… before pinching myself for over-thinking a kid’s film. Still, if it’s cute they wanted, cute is certainly what they got; Everest fulfils his function with clinical precision, permeating the film with a warmth that somewhat makes up for its aggressive blandness. It turns out that Everest is only a child, despite his size, with the other yetis being towering, almost alien behemoths the size of buildings who turn up at the end to collect their tiny offspring, so that explains his goofy persona.

We also have our two villains, who feel like they’ve been copy-and-pasted from any old random Disney film of the nineties. Motivated purely by greed, the most interesting thing about them is a bait-and-switch “twist” reveal around the mid-point, where we realise that one of them is far more irredeemable than the other.

Abominable Dr Zara
Sarah Paulson as Dr. Zara

Burnish is presented as a stereotypical “great white hunter” who saw a yeti once in his youth and has since been obsessed with finding one to sell to wealthy buyers, but as things progress, he grows to appreciate nature more and sees the folly of his pursuit (he also sets up my favourite joke of the film when he falls in love with a particular tree out in the wild, then promptly orders his men to cut it down and transplant it to his office, sighing in dreamy peace as they rush over with a chainsaw). Dr. Zara, meanwhile, is a seemingly moral Brit who is secretly a ruthless American willing to murder children for money, etc. etc. (She’s also gorgeous, which I wasn’t expecting).

Aside from the rather disappointing character writing, I also felt conflicted about the magical elements included – because yes, this isn’t just a yeti, it’s a magic yeti. Now, I’m not some fantasy hater who deplores all use of magic in fiction, but I do dislike when it’s used like it is in Abominable. You see, the magic seems to be present only for the sake of convenience and prevents the story from having any real stakes; whenever the kids are stuck in some kind of predicament and there doesn’t seem to be any way out, Everest does his magical hum and turns blue and presto, they’re saved! It’s the clumsiest, laziest kind of deus ex machina and just reinforces the idea that DreamWorks made this for the lowest common denominator. (And don’t even get me started on the plot holes, like the kids traversing three thousand kilometres in mere days and winding up in the Himalayas, still wearing nothing more than shorts and tee-shirts).

I’m doing a lot of bashing, but one thing I will say is that this film boasts some extraordinary scenery and has several scenes’ worth of really stellar animation. DreamWorks have seriously upped their game in the last few years, with some parts of the film rivalling Pixar in terms of visual quality (I’m thinking especially of the koi, the buddha, the undulating fields and Zara’s hair, among other things). Abominable may lack substance, but at least it’s stunning to look at, which is often the best that can be said of many mediocre animated films; it’s quite difficult to make this medium look bad with the budget of a major studio production to support it.

To summarise, all I can say is that while this is a decent enough kid’s film, there’s almost nothing in it for older viewers at all, and while you could well say “What’s wrong with that?”, I would argue that the best animated films have endured because they are able to appeal to anybody. Think of films like The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh or My Neighbour Totoro, or perhaps something more similar to this film like The Iron Giant; all of these remain popular because they never talked down to their audience, no matter the age, making themselves accessible to both the young and the young at heart. The former two films are most definitely aimed at young children, but they’re charming, inventive and cleverly-written enough to be enjoyed by viewers of any age.

Although I have said before and will continue to argue that animation is not all just “kids’ stuff,” I’m also not some purist who would try to deny that some animated films truly belong, first and foremost, to the young. What I take issue with is when animated films for younger viewers distinguish themselves as such by way of lazy writing, crass humour and stereotypical characters, because entertainment made for children should by no means have less effort put into it than that made for their parents. On the contrary, it is surely more important to expose people to quality films when they’re at their most receptive ages, since it is those experiences which will come to shape the future generations of artists and writers down the line. Numerous animators have fond memories of their first Disney, Pixar or Ghibli film, but how many will look back and say, “I knew I wanted to become an animator the day I first saw… Abominable.”?

I suppose I’m putting too much of a burden on this film, though. I never expected it to challenge me or push the boundaries of filmmaking, so it’s not like I’m disappointed with it. No, I got exactly what I expected – a pretty, lightweight adventure whose main contribution to cinema was to add another non-white protagonist to the increasingly diverse world of mainstream animation, the impact of which cannot be underestimated. If a young Chinese girl out there goes to see this film and comes out with a big smile on her face because Yi’s Nai Nai reminds her of her own, then that makes it all worthwhile. (Hopefully, this Asian representation will continue, with Disney’s Raya and Mulan remake set to make China a hot topic at the cinema next year).

I just hope for DreamWorks’s sake that they begin to take more risks with their storytelling in the 2020s, because they’ve already endured some stormy ups and downs over the last few years and it would be a shame to see a studio with such potential go under. They can only coast along on the backs of a handful of solid franchises for so long before audiences will begin to reject their typical lukewarm offerings. Oh, and I hope this is the last of the weird “adorable cryptid” films for a while!

{Just a final note on the subject of Abominable’s success: Clearly, DreamWorks needs to be careful with their depictions of other cultures, since sometimes even a minor element can seriously hinder the film’s potential. In this case, the film has caused some controversy in Southeast Asian countries for featuring a scene with a map on which the infamous “Nine Dash Line” is visible, a heavily contested boundary line used by China to lay claim over much of the South China Sea, much to the chagrin of neighbouring countries. Several of these neighbours, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, have subsequently banned the film, cutting off precious markets which could result in another flop for DreamWorks. Still, the blame for this can probably be laid more on Pearl Studios, since they were the Chinese partner in the production, after all… there’s no escaping politics apparently.}

 

Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this review! If you’re considering going to see this one, I hope I’ve helped you decide; it’s a nice choice if you have young kids, but for adult animation fans you might want to skip it as it’s very run-of-the-mill.

Now, Laputa. I can only berate myself once again for giving a specific date for the article – when will I learn? Procrastination is like a shark, I swear. Once it smells blood in the water – like a deadline – that’s it. It goes in for the kill, and before you know it, weeks have slipped by with little progress. I have been working on the article, but life has been getting in the way as it always does, so I’ve had to push it back a few times. I have two days off work next week in which I am going to force myself to get it finished, goddamit (I love that film, so I have no idea why it’s been such a struggle to get around to it), so it should be going up very soon. If you’ve been waiting for this one, I can only apologise for the embarrassingly long delay. See you again soon and until next time, staaay animated!

 

References
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59958317 – credit for poster
https://variety.com/2019/film/news/vietnam-abominable-dreamworks-pearl-south-china-sea-1203369444/ – an article on the Asian controversy, and credit for image of characters together
https://www.moviefone.com/2019/07/23/abominable-could-be-a-new-dreamworks-animated-classic/ – credit for image of Everest
https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/lists/abominable-cast-meet-famous-voice-actors-sarah-paulson-more-1239979/item/eddie-izzard-abominable-cast-1240795 – credit for image of Zara
https://www.indiewire.com/2019/09/abominable-review-yeti-animated-1202171733/ – credit for Buddha scene image
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-50093028 – a breakdown of the Nine Dash Line controversy
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abominable_(2019_film) – Wiki page
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6324278/ – IMDB profile

4 Replies to “First Thoughts on Abominable (2019)”

  1. It looks gorgeous, but my first thoughts on seeing the trailer just made me think of a cultural rehash of How to Train Your Dragon. I was on the fence about this film because of the reviews calling it bland, thought the dotted line controversy put me off entirely.

    Liked by 1 person

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