Abominable review: Occasionally original, but not quite daring enough
We’re at least getting a typical story told from an atypical perspective, thanks to the involvement of China’s Pearl Studio and director Jill Culton
Dir: Jill Culton. Starring: Chloe Bennet, Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Eddie Izzard, Sarah Paulson, Tsai Chin, and Michelle Wong. U cert, 97 mins
Just in case your craving for animated films about mythical apes hadn’t been satisfied by this year’s Smallfoot and Missing Link, here comes Abominable. But this one stands apart for two reasons: it’s the second official co-production between DreamWorks and China’s Pearl Studio, previously known as Oriental DreamWorks, and with Jill Culton at the helm, it’s the first major studio animation with a woman credited as the sole writer and director.
Those milestones aside, Abominable feels awfully familiar in places, especially when you realise the adorable yeti at its centre is just How To Train Your Dragon’s Toothless with a furry makeover. But we’re at least getting a typical story told from an atypical perspective. Finally freed from the confines of fairytale worlds and American suburbia, Abominable instead opens on modern-day Shanghai. It’s home to Yi (Chloe Bennett), a teenage girl who keeps busy with odd jobs – from dog walking to bussing tables – as a way to distract herself from her father’s death. Although her mother (Michelle Wong) and Nai Nai (Tsai Chin) are kind and loving, there’s a distance between them that’s made it harder for Yi to mourn.
Who could have guessed that the one to hold her hand through the five stages of grief would turn out to be a giant, monstrous fuzzball? Nicknamed Everest (Joseph Izzo), he’s an adolescent yeti recently escaped from a local facility, where he was held captive by aristocratic explorer Burnish (Eddie Izzard) and his wily zoologist assistant (Sarah Paulson). Their plans were to show him off, King Kong-style, to the rest of the scientific community, who had long ridiculed Burnish for his belief that yetis are real. They’ll do anything to get him back, meaning it’s down to Yi to get Everest home to his namesake.
Culton has written Yi as a grounded, authentic female protagonist. She’s strong and she’s fearless, but the film doesn’t fixate on it like she has anything to prove. Neither is she forced into a romance with Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), the school’s resident ladies’ man, after he ends up on Yi’s quest with his cousin Peng (Albert Tsai, adorably irksome). Culton’s keenly aware, too, of how vast the possibilities are with animation. She builds her film around several show-stopping sequences, including a scene where Yi rediscovers her love of the violin – which she’d always associated with her dad – by playing at the base of the Leshan Giant Buddha.
The notes (performed by Mark Berrow) speak to a sense of longing, but also a hard-won peace. That’s until Coldplay’s “Fix You” suddenly arrives on the scene like a bulldozer through a field of tulips. There are several instances, in fact, where the film is undercut by a desire for broad appeal, whether it’s cheap jokes or too-neat plot contrivances. Abominable strives for originality and, often, achieves it. But it’s also never quite daring enough to veer off the beaten path.
Abominable is released in UK cinemas on 11 October