Cute, cuddly piece of East-West synergy

Money glitz | 27 Sep 2019

The first co-production between DreamWorks Animation and the Shanghai-based Pearl Studios, Abominable is a rare kind of creature but the sort moviegoers will likely see more and more.

That's because the Chinese box office will soon overtake North America as the globe's top movie market, inevitably reorienting big-screen entertainment.

There's nothing wrong with aiming for moviegoers on each side of the globe. For Hollywood productions of a certain budget, it's long been considered a necessity.

And, of course, the intermingling of cultures - like in Lulu Wang's lovely and heartfelt The Farewell, released earlier this year - often fuels brilliant, border-straddling tales.

But Abominable, about a girl who discovers a yeti on the rooftop of her Shanghai apartment building, is so safe and risk-free that its business imperatives are never just off-screen.

Writer-director Jill Culton, a writer on Monsters, Inc and director of Open Season, who co-directed Abominable with Todd Wilderman, opens her film - like the Humphry Bogart thriller Dark Passage - with an escape shot from a first-person perspective.

A young yeti gets loose from the wealthy collector of rare animals (Eddie Izzard). Lured by a billboard for Mt Everest, he hides himself on nearby rooftop.

He's soon found by Yi - voiced by Chloe Bennet - a "self-proclaimed loner'' teenager living below with her mother (Michelle Wong) and her diminutive but fiery grandmother (Tsai Chin).

Since losing her father, Yi has thrown herself into an assortment of unpleasant jobs, trying to save money to make the trip across China she and her dad talked about.

The familial scenes are warm but fleeting.

Before long Yi, along with a couple of neighboring pals - Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor, whose grandfather Tenzing Norgay summited Everest with Edmund Hillary) and Peng (Albert Tsai) - take off with the yeti they nickname Everest as they try to get their furry friend back to his home in the Himalayas.

Pursuers, including a red-haired zoologist voiced by Sarah Paulson, are close behind.

A travelogue of China follows, with the gang briskly journeying between postcard inland destinations, from the Gobi Desert to Leshan Giant Buddha in Sichuan.

The animation is bright and lively, with some enchanting set-pieces. Everest, they learn, is just a big puppy - like a cartoon cousin to DreamWorks' dog-like dragon, Toothless.

He also has powers. With a low hum, Everest can spur gargantuan growth around him: a dandelion turns into an enormous floating ride, blueberries grow bigger than watermelons. The journey, too, takes on healing properties for Yi, whose beautiful violin playing - a hobby gleaned from her father - only adds to the uplifting quest.

Abominable is sweet and simple enough, but its emotionality always feels thin and, like much of the film, paint by numbers. (Coldplay's Fix You fits right in.)

If critics are being hard on a mostly charming kids movie, it's because it feels tantalizing close to being something special.

Yi, as affectionately voiced by Bennet, is a fabulously plucky heroine. And the (unfortunate) novelty of a major animated release centered completely on Asian characters, in an Asian setting, is something to celebrate. Unfortunately, Abominable still ends up feeling too familiar.

Abominable, from Universal Studios, was released in Hong Kong yesterday.


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