On creation myths, noble lies, and Smallfoot's blandly literal approach to its storybook lessons
Smallfoot Warner Bros.
Director: Karey Kirkpatrick
Screenplay: Karey Kirkpatrick and Clare Sera, based on the book Yeti Tracks, by Sergio Pablos
Starring: Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, LeBron James, Common, Gina Rodriguez, Ely Henry, Yara Shahidi and Jimmy Tatro
Rated PG / 1 hour, 36 minutes / 2.35:1
September 28, 2018
(out of four)
Children's entertainment and storybooks are often built on social allegories, their lightly probing questions and implicit moral lessons whittled into easily digestible narratives. The overt metaphors in our bedtime reading and the didacticism of certain blocks of Saturday morning programming are time-honored traditions. (Or at least I assume that's still the case. I'm old.) Fables and parables help us make sense of the world, and eventually grow into it.
The subtext becomes text in Smallfoot, a fable that informs kids about a world in which adults make up fables to inform kids about the world. It's not that cute about it, of course, or that meta. And the parabolic architecture within the narrative has to do with a specific culture's creation myths and traditions - meant to be understood by its people in literal terms. Still, the description fits, if only halfway. The film is, in broad terms, a plea for truth even when that truth doesn't benefit us - even actively endangers or inconveniences us - but it centers that conflict in such a literal-minded way that it quickly bogs itself down in tedium.
To briefly get the premise out of the way: Smallfoot is about a Yeti community, hidden somewhere in the Himalayas, whose leaders have kept it isolated from the rest of the world, to the point of devising an entire origin of existence in which they are alone on a small planet. The long-rumored "Smallfoot" (human being) is just an urban legend, and below the clouds at the bottom of their mountain is nothingness. The Yetis' entire history is "recorded" in a robe of "ancient" stones worn by the Stonekeeper (Common), the community's quasi-divine patriarch. If a concept - or a being, or an event - does not appear on any of the stones, it does not exist, or did not happen. When the good-natured Migo (Channing Tatum) stumbles upon one of the very Smallfoot creatures he's been assured do not exist, he enthusiastically takes this information back to his village, only to be told he was mistaken. When he doubles down on his story, he's banished from the village until he agrees to recant. After all, the Stonekeeper insists, we can't have people throwing around wild stories as fact, undermining our agreed-upon history and disrupting our way of life, now can we?
The Smallfoot in question has his own thematically adjacent story that we'll get to later, but for all intents and purposes, that's the gist. It's sort of like The Village, but with abominable snowmen instead of dreary 19th-Century cosplayers.
The way Karey Kirkpatrick, Clare Sera and Sergio Pablos approach this material, the film is constantly litigating the truth vs. myth angle rather than illustrating it - through symbol, song, rhyme or any other method animated filmmakers and storybook authors have specialized in for generations. So we get a lot of conversations between characters on the ethics of what they present as reality vs. the reality itself. Staging the ethical debate - even on the Yetis' stated terms, in which the alternative to their mythologized history is an outside world hostile and destructive to their very kind - doesn't get very far dramatically, and certainly isn't enough to sustain an entire narrative. And just to make matters more redundant (if thematically tidy), the film's B-plot is a variation on the same theme. The aforementioned Smallfoot who accidentally found himself above the clouds in Yeti territory is Percy Patterson (James Corden), a once-idealistic, now-desperate wildlife host who tries to seize a views-and-clicks bonanza by dressing up as a Yeti, capturing it on camera and claiming the once-in-a-lifetime discovery. The ethics of his journalism roots have given way to a propensity to stage and manufacture footage, so his Yeti idea is par for the course - to the chagrin of his still-idealistic assistant Brenda (Yara Shahidi).
That he happens to stumble upon the real thing - Migo himself - and winds up in the Yeti village quite accidentally turning their culture's entire understanding of the world upside down is an irony the film fails to get much mileage out of. (There is a Yeti and there is a giant-sized Yeti costume, and for a brief time they are mistaken for one another, and yet this does not lead to the kind of sustained mistaken-identity shenanigans that a more adventurous comic filmmaker may have have attempted.)
The film's highlight is the language barrier between the banished Migo and the desperate Percy. To the latter, the giant creature speaks only in sloppy, full-throated growls and roars; to Migo, the sounds emerging from this tiny human's mouth sound like something you'd hear from a squeaky toy. Each is desperate to prove the existence of the other - one to his tribe, the other to his audience - and have a seemingly easy opportunity to do so ... until they begin to confront the implications such revelations will have on both communities. The Stonekeeper has his reasons for keeping his villagers in the dark, and the notoriety and money presumably heading Percy's way if he reports (and proves) his discovery has more than a little downside, especially to the high-minded nature lover still lurking inside him.
But this cheerful examination of the grey areas between honesty and security falters largely because of the bland form it takes - a straightforward (if gentle) lecture that keeps on telling us exactly what it's about and exactly what its conflict is. At 96 minutes, it almost can't help but repeat itself. Ultimately we're more inclined to see it as a lesson trying to reshape itself into a story than a story that happens to contain a lesson. You can see from the character design - in particular the faces - that there's Dr. Seuss inspiration here, and perhaps that goes without saying for a children's story with a social message. But it also made me lament the minimal imagination with which that message is delivered. Now would be a good time to mention that this movie features four or five musical numbers (most of them not very good, with Common's Let it Lie being the notable exception), which is just enough to suggest a version of this movie that leaned into its musical impulses instead of tossing out a few chintzy expository numbers to snag a cheap Best Original Song nomination. Why not go full musical?
(Of course, I say that, and then I remember the hacky tackiness of Trolls, Sing and Strange Magic, and I quickly reconsider my position. Still, a full-bodied musical version of Smallfoot at least would have shown creative effort.)
There are strong details here and there in the film's design - the stones are a particularly nice touch, the way they clink and slide against each other as the Stonekeeper moves, giving physical heft to this culture's history and belief system. And I give the filmmakers credit for one bit of wisdom: The idea that leaders of groups brought together by shared ideas and/or beliefs are, themselves, primarily concerned with the preservation of the group and less susceptible to the beliefs themselves - or in many cases may know those ideas and assumptions to be false. They institutionalize and reinforce those beliefs because it binds the community together. Now, this can be driven by virtuous ideals, or it can be benign, or it can be sinister and authoritarian. For Smallfoot's Stonekeeper, he seems to be driven by a combination of virtuous and authoritarian impulses.
The film is so up-front about its message - even as it softens it with the comparatively lower-stakes TV-host subplot - that I'm somewhat surprised Fox News hasn't run a belligerent segment or two arguing that this movie trains children to question religion and tradition. I mean, it'd be such a natural target for them. Remember when The Muppets was "left-wing agitprop" because the villain was an evil oilman? Good times. If only Smallfoot had been noteworthy enough to earn some stinkeye from at least one desperate pundit on a slow news day. Alas, I think the secret of the Yetis' existence is safe with us.