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Dreamworks Animation has always been an interesting enigma in the world of animated entertainment. While it’s been an established name in the field for a little over 20 years, the studio still has a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to its overall canon. For every memorable franchise like Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, and How To Train Your Dragon, there’s a Boss Baby or The Croods that effectively weakens the brand.
It’s a mixed history that has seen Dreamworks Animation riding some tumultuous highs and lows over the years, with the occasional release being a reminder of what put them on the map in the first place. This is why it’s hard to say that Jill Culton's Abominable, the studio’s latest gamble, is a film that shows promise, but buries it under an avalanche of pandering and lame jokes.
Interestingly enough, Abominable is the third Yeti movie we’ve seen within the span of a year that focuses on the interactions between humanity and that mythical beast. This time out, our human surrogate is Yi (Chloe Bennett), a young girl who hustles through tons of side jobs, putting family and friends aside to earn the money she needs to chase a personal dream and go on an adventure that would take her to many of the most beautiful locations in China.
This chaotic lifestyle is further complicated when Abominable’s Yeti, named Everest, finds itself lost on the streets of Shanghai. Yi and Everest become fast friends, leading our protagonist to team with two of her friends (Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor) in an effort to make sure Everest gets home, and not recaptured by an eccentric millionaire (Eddie Izzard) and his zoological expert on hire (Sarah Paulson).
The good news (and quite possibly the best news that I can deliver when it comes to Abominable) is that it’s a better Yeti movie than last year’s Smallfoot. That particular film took the route of a dopey musical comedy that tried to act deep, and that is definitely not the case with Abominable. However, that's faint praise in light of the efforts of this year's Missing Link, which had more of a soulful execution in its efforts with that very same creature. Writer/director Jill Culton’s movie does have a strong kernel of an idea upon which it's built, but the genre trappings it decides to pile onto that idea land it in-between those competing efforts when it comes to its level of success.
Yi’s dream, which is connected to the memory of her late father, ties into everything that her character stands for. In theory, her commitment to the memory of her father, and the dream they shared, is a perfect foil to her friends, Peng and Jin, who are fixated with basketball and popularity, respectively. Done right, there could have been a good story to be told, with a timeless lesson waiting at the end.
There’s even a strong conservationist message in Abominable, with a character that’s normally reserved for the side of evil taking a total 180 by the end of the film. It’s twists and accents like these that hint at a better version of this project existing at some point. Which, in turn, suggests that the reason the execution of these ideas is so flawed is due to the classic cause of death for most promising movies: filmmaking by committee.
Rather than trust its deeper story to grab the attention of both child and adult, Abominable weighs down its narrative with repetitive jokes about selfies, basketball, the condition of an expensive pair of sneakers, and a myriad of other cheap attempts at laughter. Undoubtedly the victim of comedy punch up work that accompanies such a film, Dreamworks Animation couldn’t resist putting its trademark smirk on the movie, and the end result suffers endlessly for it.
This really makes the fact that a diverse and talented cast is at play both a blessing and a curse, as the material fails the actors. That being said, they pull as much as they can from the fires before the house burns down completely. Chloe Bennett’s Yi is a hero that children can look up to, and her character is so well drawn that she could have truly carried this film if given stronger material. That’s not to say that her co-stars Albert Tsai and Tenzing Norgay Trainor don’t hold their own, but again, their talents can only do so much with the writing given to their respective characters.
It isn’t that Abominable is a bad movie, but rather it’s a frustrating and disappointing one. Much like the mixed results of Dreamworks Animation’s filmography, the mixture of sincerity and mass market humor puts the film off the mark it’s trying to hit. There’s some laughs and tears to be had by time everything wraps up, and a running gag involving a particular breed of snake will be a memorable joke that’s bound to dominate the discussion of this film.
As far as achieving the goals of Abominable’s ambitious and emotional story are concerned, though, the casualties are heavy. Kids may sit with rapt attention watching the adventure unfold before their eyes in beautifully colored detail, but adults will see the deep flaws that separate this story from greatness. It may have good intentions and lush visuals to please the eye, but Abominable still isn’t yeti for prime time, squandering its promising premise in the name of looking cool for the kids.