Trailers for the new computer-animated, kid-friendly “Smallfoot” were unpromising, and the yeti heroes, with noseless faces and flared-out legs that resembled bell-bottoms, were unappealing.
Happily, the film is surprisingly smart; the characters quickly grow to be quite lovable.
This same fate befell Steven Spielberg’s delightful “The BFG”; it was judged it by its cover and became the biggest flop in the great director’s career. Here’s hoping the same doesn’t happen to “Smallfoot.”
The story of “Smallfoot” is simple, and not entirely original (it’s similar to “Monsters, Inc.”), but well-told. A community of yetis live on top of a mountain, protected from the world below by a ring of clouds.
Their beliefs and laws are etched into stone and worn on a long cloak by their leader, The Stone Keeper (voiced by Common).
Most yetis have the daily job of cutting and feeding ice to the “elephants” holding up the mountain, but our hero Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum) is training to ring the huge gong that wakes up the great sky snail (i.e., the sun) for its daily crawl across the sky.
Migo follows the rules and cheerfully sings about not asking questions — until an accident puts him in contact with a “smallfoot,” a human. He discovers that some of his fellow yeti — led by the Stone Keeper’s daughter Meechee (voiced by Zendaya) — are part of a secret society of question askers seeking the truth about the world below.
Meanwhile, the host of a TV animal show, Percy Patterson (voiced by James Corden, thankfully making up for his dismal “Peter Rabbit” movie), is looking for a ratings boost. In seeking the mythical yeti, he discovers they’re not just monsters to be exploited for showbiz.
Comically, the humans and yetis can’t speak to one another; the humans hear yeti voices as fearsome roars, and humans sound like squeaky little chipmunks. They must learn to communicate through other means.
The story is a thin cover for a strong message about, yes, asking questions and not putting blind faith in intolerant, generations-old rules. It’s also about being open to, rather than automatically fearing, those who look different,
The movie’s wall of clouds between different communities doesn’t keep anyone in or out; all are better off interacting with and learning from each other.
Far from heavy-handed, the messages still are bold enough for young ones to get pleasure from understanding them without being told what to look for.
The swooping visual simplicity of the yetis may distract from just how complex the animation is. The yeti community contains myriad dazzling moving parts: a slapstick sequence with Migo crashing into the human world is nearly as good as a Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoon and a climatic chase through the dark woods — lit by harsh, high-contrast headlamps of snowmobiles — is amazing.
The movie contains its share of juvenile jokes (like a repeating one about a yak’s butt), but also wise jokes for grateful adults.
The musical is varied and Common’s sinister, logical rap song about why the stones are necessary to protect the yetis is a brazen highlight.
“Smallfoot’s” considerable talent includes writer-producers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (co-writers of “Bad Santa”); co-producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“The Lego Movie” masterminds); and co-writer, co-director Karey Kirkpatrick, whose career goes back to Disney’s “The Rescuers Down Under” and includes writing on “James and the Giant Peach” and “Chicken Run.”
Their work adds up to a joyous, spirited film. It is indeed a message movie — but a message about kindness and curiosity triumphing over fear and ignorance is one worth re-hearing.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Voices of Channing Tatum, Zendaya, James Corden, Common
Written by: Karey Kirkpatrick, Clare Sera
Directed by: Karey Kirkpatrick, Jason Reisig
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes