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Abominable Movie Review

Abominable (2019) movie poster Abominable

Theatrical Release: September 27, 2019 / Running Time: 100 Minutes / Rating: PG

Writer/Director: Jill Culton

Voice Cast: Chloe Bennet (Yi), Albert Tsai (Peng), Tenzing Norgay Trainor (Jin), Joseph Izzo (Everest), Sarah Paulson (Dr. Zara), Eddie Izzard (Burnish), Tsai Chin (Nai Nai), Michelle Wong (Yi's Mom), Rich B. Dietl (Goon Leader), James Hong (Yak Leader)


DreamWorks Animation might just be the fastest falling brand in modern cinema. The studio that for around a full decade rivaled Pixar and Disney in commercial success and surpassed them both in output volume now finds itself struggling to remain relevant and profitable. When Pixar preached originality, DreamWorks believed in the power of sequels. But the quickly expanding franchises quickly grew stale, with supply eclipsing demand.
Earlier this year, the threequel How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the first DreamWorks release in nearly two years, was considered a success for only grossing about $60 million less domestically than the original movie did back in 2010 unadjusted for inflation.

Once known for their A-list voice casts, adult-friendly innuendo, and not particularly refined sense of humor, DreamWorks has seen its identity fade while companies like Illumination and Sony Pictures Animation have grown more formidable with comparable ingredients. The upcoming DWA slate -- consisting of, no joke!, sequels to The Croods, Trolls, and The Boss Baby -- reaks of desperation and miscalculation. But before we arrive at those predictable rough waters, which DreamWorks now navigates with Universal as distributor, we get Abominable, a film that is marketed "from the studio that brought you Dragon" and closely patterns itself after that esteemed series.

The movie opens with a yeti breaking out of research lab. He ends up on the rooftop of an apartment building in Shanghai, where he soon and effortlessly befriends Yi (voiced by Chloe Bennett), a teenaged go-getter. With help from Yi, the large, cuddly, furry monster whom she names Everest (after a billboard that catches his eye) eludes the wealthy adventurer Burnish (Eddie Izzard) and his determined team led by the zoologist Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson). Joining our heroes on this perilous trek are her rolypoly basketball-loving young cousin Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and teen neighbor/friend Peng (Albert Tsai), a social media-obsessed selfie fiend.

Everest the yeti hangs off a soda truck like Royal Tenenbaums and his grandkids in DreamWorks' "Abominable."

Yi and Everest aspire to the nonverbal Hiccup/Toothless dynamic, even striking the same poses together on occasion. They bond over music, with Yi playing the violin for him and him humming and glowing in response. Everest is magical, but only when the movie absolutely needs him to be.

The themes of Abominable are admirable. And the production makes the now-savvy decision to let actors of Asian origin voice these Chinese characters whose culture it treats with respect and care. There is even the added bonus of the film being written and directed by a woman: Jill Culton, who started at Pixar, was one of two directors of Open Season at Sony, and has the helm all to herself here on this project she developed for years, left in 2016, and then returned to finish.

The movie makes these progressive moves a live-action version probably wouldn't. Alas, it's not enough for it to hit its intended marks. Part of that is timing. Abominable began development all the way back in 2010, when the first Dragon, the last Shrek, and Pixar's epic Toy Story 3 all were released. But just in the past year, we've gotten Smallfoot from Warner Bros. Animation and Missing Link from Laika. Narratively, Abominable feels like a direct descendant of those two disparate productions. It's not quite as stupid and silly as Smallfoot, but nor is it as smart and witty as Missing Link. But its tale of humans befriending a yeti while scientists hunt for it occupies the same space. And the Chinese characters and their home life recalling Pixar's Oscar-winning 2018 short Bao are not enough to make this stand tall or even stand out.

Everest and Yi want to be like "How to Train Your Dragon" buddies Toothless and Hiccup.

It is as if Culton and her large creative team studied Dragon and meticulously tried to recreate its appeal in the tradition of loner-kid-befriends-animal movies. They have only modest and intermittent success here, however. Comic gags regularly fall flat, apart from a den of genetically engineered snakes that whoop and add a tiny bit of humor (and a Tag Team joke that might be the film's best for those who know the 1993 one-hit wonder).
The other bits, involving Yi and Everest's musical bond and her secret ambitions, seem well-intentioned, but they just did not feel authentic or resonant to me. Maybe if you haven't seen Dragon and other movies of that sort, the material would speak to you. But I found it unconvincing, like Jin's basketball fervor, a quirk conceived by a committee of uncredited writers and not something born out of real life passion.

The most striking moment of the film is a climactic scene involving a mostly instrumental, slightly reworked version of Coldplay's 2005 hit "Fix You" that made me wonder how long ago it was licensed and put in this long-developing project. It is increasingly feeling like the first decade of the 2000s were DreamWorks' heyday and the studio is struggling to return to those heights, which were more significant commercially than artistically or critically. Abominable doesn't live up to its title, but it feels like it's lacking something to distinguish it in what is sure to be considered a golden age of animation. At the same time, I expect the film should flourish in China, where it will be distributed by Pearl Studio (formerly Oriental DreamWorks), a joint venture between DWA and Chinese investment companies.

Related Reviews:
DreamWorks Animation: How to Train Your Dragon Rise of the Guardians
Smallfoot Missing Link The Farewell
Chloe Bennet: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: The Complete First Season Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast

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Reviewed September 23, 2019.

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