You ain't seen nothin' Yeti

'Smallfoot' subversive in substance, second-rate in style

In 2015, a Pew Research Center study reported that the fastest growing category of religious belief is an absence of religion, with nearly a quarter of the U.S. population subscribing to no religion at all. And now, courtesy of Warner Animation Group, we have "Smallfoot," a PG-rated animated picture, clearly aimed at families, that depicts a civilization coming to terms with the fraudulence of its own closely-held religion.

The religious majority may feel this means Hollywood is hastening America to hell in a handbasket, but it's my job merely to tell you about "Smallfoot," which -- whatever its intentions -- offers only moderate entertainment value. Directed and co-scripted by Karey Kirkpatrick ("Chicken Run," "Over the Hedge"), "Smallfoot" positions as its protagonist a young Yeti named Migo (Channing Tatum), who lives in blissful ignorance as he anticipates the day he'll take over the superstitious duties of his father Dorgle (Danny DeVito). In accordance with long-held beliefs, Dorgle starts every day by head-butting a gong in order to make the sun rise, an activity that pointedly causes concussions and not only stunts the man's growth but reverses it.

This pointless and harmful tradition may not rise to the level of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" when it comes to perniciousness, but it does make fools of Migo's entire village, with one exception. The Stonekeeper (Common) wears the Yeti religion as a kind of armor: a vest of stones, with each stone representing a supposed truth. Once Migo has a chance encounter with a human being, an entity heretofore believed to be mythical, the Yeti can't un-see the truth. This "Bigfoot" has met a "Smallfoot," a Steve Irwin-esque TV host named Percy (James Corden). Language is a barrier, but a gesture reminiscent of "Androcles and the Lion" begins a friendship that soon leads to all of the Yeti seeing Percy with their own eyes -- and thus having to reckon with a direct challenge to their beliefs.

With smug self-confidence, the Stonekeeper says of his followers, "You'd be surprised what they'd believe," while another character later counters, in describing the truth, "It's complicated, and it can be scary. But it's better than living a lie."

In what's been called a post-truth America, such sentiments may speak to the adults in the room, but in its narrative particulars, "Smallfoot" falls flat. The characters are bland, as are the six new songs (one sung by Zendaya, who plays a Yeti crusader for truth) that qualify the picture as a musical. (The credits note that "Smallfoot" derives from "Yeti Tracks," by Spanish animator/screenwriter Sergio Pablos, but oddly, the book appears to be unpublished.)

Arguably the film's biggest letdown is its CGI animation, with its uncanny details, unexciting designs and unwelcome color schemes weighing down the picture instead of lifting it with visual lyricism. There's some ski-less skiing and a brief snowmobile chase, but the only element that got a reliable reaction from the restless kids at a recent preview screening was physically punishing slapstick. And so "Smallfoot" falls into that "not Disney, not Pixar" category of American animation: not bad, per se, but mediocre. The film's low-key but undeniably pro-science, anti-superstition stance sets it apart as something of a thinker, even a subversive one, but it's dubious that kids will pick up on the provocation between the pratfalls and the pop songs.

— Peter Canavese

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