One of the more intriguing aspects to Abominable is perhaps how fortunate the film is getting released at all. Originally titled Everest, it was in development as early as 2010 for DreamWorks Animation with Jill Culton later attached to write and direct. In 2016, she was off the film and would be replaced by Tim Johnson and Todd Wilderman. It would also be produced in collaboration with the Shanghai-based Oriental DreamWorks. Around the same time, DreamWorks Animation would be acquired by NBC Universal. By February 2018, Oriental DreamWorks would become the independent Pearl Studios and Culton was restored as the sole director of the film to be later re-titled Abominable. Now, the film is getting released after nine years in the making.
Teenager Yi is struggling to cope with the loss of her father to the point of isolating herself from family and friends. One evening, she happens upon a Yeti hiding on the rooftop of her apartment building in Shanghai and bonds with it. When an elderly entrepreneur becomes intent on capturing the creature, Yi determines to help her new friend return to its home on Mount Everest after she and neighbors Jin and Peng inadvertently tag along for the ride. Venturing out of the city and across the landscapes of mainland China, they try to stay one step ahead of their pursuers while discovering the magical capabilities of the Yeti, who the teens refer to as Everest.
The narrative is fairly basic. It’s almost detrimental how basic it is. The film utilizes familiar plot devices, holds back a lot on character development, and keeps conflicts to a minimum. Hardly at any point in the film do Yi and Everest have any sense of friction with one another. Most of the bickering is from Jin, but even then there’s not much animosity and he begins to roll along sooner than later. It does feel like more could have been added to the film to expand on the characters, but were prevented from doing so in order to keep the film around 90 minutes. And while there are a couple of moments where the antagonists get closer to capturing Everest, the situations are not really all that dire. It leads up to a showdown that is very anti-climatic after all is said and done.
While the storytelling is rather safe, it’s not too terrible. It’s fairly well told all things considered. I think part of that has to do with the pacing of the film, with the key plot elements spread out evenly and in a manner that makes it all easy to follow without being overwhelming. It manages to time when to go from dramatic sequence to character moment so that they flow swimmingly. And there are elements that are nicely presented that they manage to compensate for the overall narrative not being greater than it could be. As much as there was a lot of depth to Yi that isn’t presented, such as an understanding to how important her father was to her that she would have difficulty moving on from his passing, scenes showing how the journey has been helping her heal emotionally are pleasantly realized.
Another aspect to why I think the film is at least good is how likable the protagonists are. Everest is an adorable creature whose childish charm is displayed in a cute and natural manner, resulting in smiles throughout. Yi makes for a fine heroine and her appeal is in how she strives to overcome her internal adversity as she becomes closer to Everest. Jin has his moments of being shallow and self-indulgent, but he does have a caring side that allows for him to become a better person. Peng is whole optimistic that it can sometimes be a flaw, but it works quite well when paired with the impressionable Yeti that he ends up enjoyable. By the time the film ends, the quartet become an adorable bunch that it’s heartwarming.
The film assembles a nice cast to provide voices for the characters. Chloe Bennet does a fine job portraying Yi as capable with hints of vulnerability. Tenzing Norgay Trainor gives Jin a fun voice that’s entertaining. Albert Tsai finds the right childish appeal in Peng. Eddie Izzard is very good in providing a unique voice to Burnish the entrepreneur. Sarah Paulson works well with zoologist Dr. Zara. It’s Joseph Izzo who gives a great voice to Everest, creating creature sounds and noises that are natural and fun. Admittedly, the cast only do enough to make the characters pleasing and, aside from Izzo’s contributions to Everest, don’t really elevate them to being all that memorable. Bennet and Izzard clearly try, but some of the character development being held back does hamper the performances a bit.
If anything, the best thing about Abominable is the animation. The collaboration between DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studios has resulted in a beautiful looking film. It may not be the best animation produced, certainly not on the level of say this year’s other DreamWorks feature How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. Nevertheless, the visuals on display are breathtaking to behold, realizing key locations of China in a such a way that it beckons viewers to go out see it for themselves in person. The character designs are simple, but no less appealing as they bring out their personalities quite well. This is certainly so with how Everest is visualized and animated, adding to the character’s charm that’s lovable.
Adding to the film’s beauty are the effects for when magic is presented. Again, it would seem simple to visualize blueberries growing and then overgrowing to the point of creating miniature meteorites that pummel the characters from behind. But there’s a nice little quality to it that makes the scene fun to watch. More impressive is later on when it applies to Yi’s emotional healing. Even though it’s almost given away in full in the trailer, I won’t say much more to what extent this occurs. It is nonetheless realized in a heartwarming way that it adds to the appeal to the character and how she becomes connected to Everest.
An aspect that is shown in the trailer is the violin playing a central part in the narrative. And as you would expect, it plays a big role in the film’s score. But composer Rupert Gregson-Williams makes a wise choice in letting the violin solos really sing only in the key scenes where it is vital. This makes its presence really shine against the rest of the music played through the film. Gregson-Williams himself even contributes to Everest, providing him musical hums that is present when magic is performed. The music overall does an effective job in enhancing the scenes when played to bring out their emotional impact. It’s nothing groundbreaking and Gregson-Williams has composed better scores, but it’s no less enjoyable to listen to.
Abominable is a delightful film. The very basic narrative prevents it from being better than it had the potential of becoming, almost to the point of being dangerously detrimental. What’s more, some character development seems to be held back and ends up denying us what would surely be some wonderful moments. Regardless, it’s charming and appealing enough to be rather enjoyable. With animation that’s simple yet beautiful, a nice music score that plays a big part in the storytelling, and a fine cast of likable characters, it’s a lovely film that will surely attract families looking for a nice film to watch. Just don’t go in expecting it to reach the highest peak of the creative mountain.
Universal Pictures, DreamWorks Animation, Pearl Studios
September 27, 2019
Directed by Jill Culton