Abominable is a brand-new animated film from DreamWorks (the studio behind the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy), and was written and directed by Jill Culton, with co-directing credits going to Todd Wilderman. It stars Chloe Bennett (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as the voice of Yi, a young Chinese girl living with her mother and Nai Nai, who keeps as busy as she can in order to save enough money to take a trip she and her father were supposed to go on together before he sadly passed away. She keeps so busy, in fact, that her Nai Nai always asks why she’s never home anymore, and her cousins Peng (an avid basketball enthusiast voiced by Albert Tsai) and Jin (a self-absorbed socialite voiced by Tenzing Norgay Trainor) never see much of her when she is home. One night, after sneaking onto her roof to play a violin her father played for her as a child, she discovers something lurking behind the laundry: a magical Yeti, alone, which is being searched for by a top secret government organization, headed up by an explorer desperate to show the world proof of what he claims to have seen when scouting Mt. Everest as a young explorer. If this Yeti (which Yi names Everest) is to survive, Yi must embark on the adventure of a lifetime, and return him to his family on Mt. Everest, before he’s found and captured, or worse. The film also stars the voices of Joseph Izzo, Eddie Izzard, Sarah Paulson, Tsai Chin, and Michelle Wong.
DreamWorks is a strange animation studio, in that they’ve had massive success with their How to Train Your Dragon trilogy (the first of which is my favorite animated film of all time), but little to none with their other properties since the original two Shrek films (a franchise they ran straight into the ground), despite a sequel to their 2013 film The Croods being slated for release in December of next year. It really is an odd thing to see such a large animation house be almost entirely funded by one excellent series, even though they put out a large library of other features that, sure, aren’t as good, but aren’t anywhere near as bad as their box office receipts might suggest (at least to those not as familiar with box office vs. quality disparities). Despite the ubiquity of Pixar as an animation house, DreamWorks seems to continue, time after time, telling original stories in increasingly creative fashion about things no other animation house seems to be in on, and with the aforementioned Disney-backed juggernaut now churning out sequels almost as quickly as original content, DreamWorks has a distinct advantage to share the market on original animated properties, as well as an uncertain decade ahead now that their second flagship franchise has concluded with The Hidden World earlier this year. To be clear, Abominable is no How to Train Your Dragon, but it also doesn’t really have to be.
After seeing the trailer for Abominable, I was interested, but skeptical. There was only one trailer, and while the film looked sweet and fun, I wasn’t sure if it would eventually devolve into more childish antics and lose most of its muster, as happens with most of Illumination Studios’ material (seriously, someone get a decent writer over there). I needn’t have been concerned, however, because as animated features this year go, this is perhaps the one that most filled out the expectations I had for it. I don’t think it will ultimately land a nomination spot in the Best Animated Feature category, but this is a charming, fun, and heartfelt film in its own unique ways, and there is a place in the cinematic landscape for movies like this that are small in their production, but large in their ambitions. In fact, I’d venture to say that if DreamWorks continues down the path that Abominable has set them on, they can look forward to a very bright and prosperous future.
To get this out of the way right off the bat, this is one of the most beautiful DreamWorks Animation films I have ever seen, ranking just below the Dragons franchise, especially in terms of how creature and land effects are rendered on screen. DreamWorks has always had a special secret weapon with them in every movie they make, and it usually takes the form of the visual splendor on display, which is entirely understandable, as animation is one of the studio’s strongest branches. Not all of it adds up to an astounding whole, and there are a few spots where perhaps the effects and animation could have been a bit sharper or more distinct, but regardless, the film is beautiful to look at, and features yet another one of the studio’s secret weapons in that the “camerawork” for more than a few scenes emulates what the film might look like if it were live-action, with the scale and scope of each location and effect leaping off the screen in breathtaking fashion. This is Abominable’s largest strength by a stretch; luckily, though, it’s not the movie’s only strength.
The chief thing this movie had to get right was its characters (after all, if we don’t care about them, we won’t care about the movie), and it mostly succeeds in that regard. Almost all of them are fun to spend time with, and you really do feel for Yi as she yearns for her father’s comfort and solace, finding new family in Everest, whose debut in this film ranks up there with some of the most adorable and charming creatures in all of animated filmmaking. The relationship between those two is what really drives the film, and the connection they have as characters both isolated from their families is palpable from the second they meet for the first time. Peng and Jin don’t get as much characterization as I might’ve otherwise liked, but the latter does end up experiencing some growth over the course of the film that I enjoyed seeing, while the adventurous spirit of the former fits his character like a glove, even if occasionally, those gloves seem a bit too stuck to the writer’s hands.
The music is also beautiful, and while the film does have a few spots where songs play when it would have perhaps been more powerful to use a musical score, this does nothing to ultimately diminish that beauty as Yi’s violin rings through the around her, filling the earth with wonder and majesty not alluded to in this particular fashion by almost any other animated feature film. And, in presenting the violin as Yi’s strongest connection to her father, Culton finds a way to wring strong thematic resonance out of every single time the instrument is played, even if it happens perhaps one or two times more than necessary. I was surprised at points to find myself tearing up in a few spots as the strings reverberated through the theater, and being as moved as I sometimes was by this movie is a testament to just how powerful its thematic drive and its character struggles are when they’re really turned up to 11. And even then, I may be selling it a bit short.
Abominable does have a few flaws, though, that keep it from being as truly great as it had the potential to be; for one, the editing in the film is occasionally a bit off. It’s not bad, and in fact, most of it is really well-done, but there are just a few spots where it seemed like some scenes ended earlier than they needed to, and some others went on a bit longer than necessary. This doesn’t break the movie by any stretch, but it will be noticeable to those of us who go to movies a lot, so just be prepared to say “what?” after a couple of cutaways. What does ultimately weaken the film (even by a small measure), unfortunately, is the lack of depth given to the supporting characters that aren’t part of the main trio. Yi’s mother and Nai Nai are there, but as the movie points out, she doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with them, which would be fine if the film decided to give them anymore depth beyond “wise cooking grandmother” and “lonely mom she lives with.” In fact, Yi’s mom is almost entirely defined by her motherhood, but only in the sense that she exists as Yi’s mother, rather than that being an actual thematic line through the film. There are also one or two jokes that either don’t land as well as Culton was probably expecting they were, or that go on just a bit too long, but those are neither here nor there, and they don’t do much to diminish the movie’s overall spirit.
In the end, Abominable is a refreshing change of pace for families looking to see something new after September yielded decent results only in adult film categories, and apart from DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon films, it may likely be the best animated feature they’ve put out yet, especially among their more self-contained stories. The characters are fun to hang out with, the film is filled with heart and charm to spare, and the film itself is visually stunning, featuring some jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring animation like the kind only DreamWorks can pull off this well. It may stumble in one or two arenas due to having a lot on its mind, but ultimately, this movie should (and likely will) be counted as one of 2019’s best animated features to date.
I’m giving “Abominable” an 8.9/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.