DreamWorks Animation is no stranger to crafting stories while pushing reality and tickling the imagination. Thanks to this studio, audiences around the world know how to move it move it, train a whole host of dragons, and that plans can be crafted out of glitter and felt. This time around, DreamWorks invites audiences to take a journey to the Himalayas in Abominable, an original tale of friendship and healing that is serious enough to entrance and is silly enough to know that safety is guaranteed, from writer/director Jill Culton (Open Season) and co-director Todd Wilderman (Open Season 2).
In the city of Hong Kong lives teenager Yi (voiced by Chloe Bennet), neighbor Peng (voiced by Albert Tsai), and Peng’s university-bound cousin Jin (voiced by Tenzing Norgay Trainor). Though the three are in very different stages of life and have grown apart, each are connected by their time growing up together in their building. One evening, Yi finds a yeti, hurt and scared, on the roof of their building and, after helping him heal, realizes that he’s on the run from animal hunters and needs help getting back to his home on Mount Everest. With aging adventurer Mr. Burnish (voiced by Eddie Izzard) and his zoologist Dr. Zara (voiced by Sarah Paulson) on their heels, the rag-tag team of friends travel across China to get the yeti, dubbed “Everest,” home.
Culton created the story for Monsters, Inc. and worked on several other DreamWorks productions, so it’s no surprise that Abominable has everything you’d expect from a DreamWorks film. Audiences know that there will be quirky characters, narrative-challenging perspective, and moments of absolute wonder. The vocal cast does a great job of bringing the characters to life, making them more nuanced as the story progresses. This is important as each character (Everest, Yi, Peng, Jin, Burnish, and Zara) grows to become more than how they’re initially presented. In the case of the children, Yi is initially presented as a distant, secretive teen; Peng as a lonely, yet positive kid; and Jin as an appearance-obsessed young adult. Through the journey to return Everest, each character reveals that they’re more than their initial avatars. It’s through this slow realization of the depths of the characters that the unexpected appears within the narrative. Abominable is about family, that much is obvious. The central story involves returning Everest to his and there is an expectation that the three teens will create one of their own through the journey they undertake. While both of these are true, there’s something else at play. It’s a story of healing by acknowledging that doing so requires personal permission, that we, as individuals, can become so locked in by our grief that we forget how one tragedy impacts others. That what looks like distance to one, is isolation to another. Impressively, Culton doesn’t wait until the climax of the film to reveal this and, in doing so, enables the final set piece of Abominable to possess far more weight and power. DreamWorks films don’t tend to shy away from darker content as the characters frequently face death-defying challenges, but Abominable actually explores, through subtext, the significance of the family structure as of one of support when dealing with loss. In this case, it takes saving one family to save another.
Before you go thinking that Abominable is a grim-dark affair along the lines of live action-animation mash-up A Monster Calls, let’s get one thing straight. Abominable is about restoration, healing, and balance. This translates to visual elements being bright and cheery, danger elements being softened, and magical elements being tied to repairing nature. Everest, the audience quickly learns, possesses the ability to tap into nature, an ability which is depicted as a blue light emanating from within him when he hums (voiced by Rupert Gregson-Williams, the composer for Abominable). A real Deus Ex Yeti, Everest’s ability comes in handy in every situation the group faces during their journey and it’s always non-violent in nature, defensive rather than offensive, and is always through natural elements, none of which involve his own physical attacking. This not only creates a similar ideology of violence as a last resort as DreamWorks’s Dragon series, which ended earlier this year, but makes a clear line between man’s frequent disturbance of nature and nature’s desire for balance. In one beautiful sequence, the gang arrives at the Leshan Giant Buddha, a 233-foot statue carved out of a cliff, to find it covered in ivy. This scene possesses strong significance for the characters, a point that is clearly acknowledged through dialogue, and is enhanced by the budding flowers on the ivy as a symbol of renewal. If this sounds like it’s not going to keep your little ones interested, don’t worry, there’re plenty of glowing lights, sweeping action, and exotic animals (Whoop!) to keep them entertained. If the audience of this screening is any indication, audiences of all ages will find something to entrance them.
There is one particular aspect of Abominable which is both its greatest strength and weakness: commitment to proper representation. The casting is perfect, with the principal and tertiary characters voiced largely by actors of the appropriate race. Even DreamWorks favorite father and noodle expert James Hong (Kung Fu Panda series) makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in one of the town’s the gang passes through. This is something for which Culton and DreamWorks should be commended when other films like Laika Studio’s Kubo and the Two Strings, a film set in Japan, utilized Caucasian actors for the leads. Where the weakness comes in is when the significance of several culturally major moments come into play that aren’t explained beyond the surface. The most specific, non-spoilery moment is early in the film when a light show from a tower helps Everest escape from Burnish’s helicopters tracking him across the cityscape. There’s a comment from Jin right before it happens where he asks Peng for the time, but, otherwise, there’s no explanation. Why this matters is because the city itself never gets identified, so there’s no way to know that a light show, called “A Symphony of Lights,” has taken place every night since 2004 wherein the buildings around the Hong Kong harbor engage in a synchronized light show. Yes, this is a kid’s movie, but why not build in a little groundwork so that this significant cultural event isn’t glossed over. This continues all the way to Leshan with characters going places that matter to Yi, yet are not fully explained to the audience. Thankfully, Bennet’s performance enables the audience to fully connect with the emotional significance, even if not the literal one.
Abominable may lack the music of Trolls, the body humor of Shrek, and the reality-warping of Boss Baby, but it maintains the sense of wonder that all of these films and more instill. If you knew nothing about Abominable except for Culton’s CV, you already have an inkling of the type of film you’d be experiencing. She’s the creator of the stories for both Open Season and Monsters, Inc. and worked in the Art department for Monsters, Inc. and A Bug’s Life. These are stories in which relationships are the center focus amid a great deal of adventure, drama, and a touch of magic. Offering this as the foundation for Abominable, audiences are in for a fun, far-flung adventure which takes them from the bustling city of Hong Kong through the beautiful countryside to the highest peak of the Himalayas. These are but set dressing, as Abominable is a lovely reminder that it doesn’t matter where you go, but with whom you travel.
In theaters September 27th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.