Dreamworks Animation produces animated movies that are all over the map, from the infantile silliness of Captain Underpants and Boss Baby to the sophisticated adventures of the How to Train Your Dragon movies and Mr. Peabody and Sherman. But the studio returns again and again to movies comfortably in the middle, stories that elicit the wonder and vulnerability of childhood (and sometimes its crudeness) with linear narrative structures reminiscent of the best picture books and middle-grade novels. Think of the Kung Fu Panda movies, or Home, or The Croods — family films with clear story lines that usually involve innocent heroes confronted with the challenges and evildoers of the harsh outside world.
Abominable is among Dreamworks’ best ventures into that pleasant storybook realm. The story is simple: A yeti escapes a research facility in an unnamed Chinese city and makes friends with a teenager, Yi (voiced by Chloe Bennet), who soon realizes she needs to help the creature, whom she dubs Everest, back to his Himalayan home. They’re joined in their journey by a vain teenage boy, Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), and Jin’s goofy younger cousin, Ping (Albert Tsai), and they’re pursued by a scientist, Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson) and her employer, a wealthy old hunter named Burnish (Eddie Izzard).
This isn’t a Disney movie, so Yi’s mother isn’t dead — but her father is, and she carries along her dad’s violin, which she has played only in secret since his death. That’s really it for plot line, and that’s just fine. There are a few not-unexpected twists along the way, and there’s a slow reveal of the more mysterious side to the fluffy beast Everest. But mostly this is a chase across China, with gorgeous vistas of real-ish locations, kids doing silly kid-like things, and some supernatural surprises — all with top-notch character animation and brilliantly constructed digital sets and backgrounds.
It’s thoroughly engaging and consistently entertaining — as well as being shamelessly commercial. Everest looks exactly like the plush toy I’m sure he already is, and the Chinese locale will serve as a firm launch pad to reach Asian moviegoers — who will no doubt hear the voices of native speakers of other languages, and not the purely American cast in the U.S. release.
However stuffable he may be, Everest is cleverly animated and a hard character to resist. His relationships with each of his three companions are well drawn and touching. In an unplanned nod to this summer’s Yesterday (“It’s not Coldplay. It’s not ‘Fix You’”), Coldplay’s “Fix You” serves nicely for one poignant montage that involves Yi and that violin and one of the movie’s more spectacular virtual locations.
Given a choice between Dreamworks’ “crood”-er entertainments, with their slapdash, low-brow humor, and its more emotionally driven (perhaps girl-targeted) fare, such as Abominable and Home, I’ll opt for the heartstrings tugging every time. I can’t say whether Abominable is more fun that the other recent Yeti cartoon, Smallfoot, since the tiresome trailer for that one encouraged me to skip it altogether. But I can say that families and animation-loving adults will be won over by Yi and Everest and company.
Grade: B-plus. Rated PG. Now playing at the AMC River Hills, Carolina Cinemark, and Regal Biltmore Grande.
(Photo: Dreamworks Animation)