Family-oriented, animated films come in all shapes, colors, and sizes, but rarely do they stray from inoffensive, unobjectionable life lessons or surface-level messages of the peace, love, and understanding, but co-writer and co-director Karey Kirkpatrick’s (Imagine That, Over the Hedge) Smallfoot, a decidedly second-tier animation effort from Warner Bros. and Sony Animation Group, goes the extra half-mile, going where few, if any animated films dare to go: Tackling bits and pieces of American history, specifically colonialism and, by extension, world history. Even the word “genocide,” coined in post-WWII Europe at the Nuremberg Trials, makes a surprising appearance, leading to an unusual message: Willful ignorance or blindness for a good (community) cause may not be the worst way to go.
Before we get that exchange of dialogue – an exchange that Smallfoot then goes about refuting, it should be added – Smallfoot follows a comfortably familiar template, with the dim, if kind-hearted Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum), a big, oafish Yeti in an isolated community of mountain-top-dwelling Yetis, gets his entire world (and worldview) turned upside down when he encounters a mythical Smallfoot (aka, a human) when a plane crash lands near the Yetis’ village. Before long, however, both the interloper and the plane have disappeared from sight and the village’s old-school leader, the singularly stern Stonekeeper (Common), calls Migo’s bluff: Admit he lied or hallucinated the Smallfoot or risk permanent exile from the village. He chooses truth and exile, a heavy price for any Yeti to pay.
Migo, however, isn’t alone in believing in the existence of the Smallfoot. He’s joined on what turned into a series of semi-slapstick misadventures far below the clouds by Meechee (Zendaya), the Stonekeeper’s daughter, Kolka (Gina Rodriguez), a gender-balancing follower, not a leader, Gwangi (LeBron James), a heavyweight, purple Yeti (apparently the only one of his kind), and the intentionally annoying, bundle-of-neuroses Fleem (Ely Henry). While Migo’s conspiracy-theory-oriented friends stay behind, Migo takes a literal leap of faith t the world below, encountering a second human, Percy (James Corden), a nature-show host who sees Migo as the perfect opportunity to turn his failing career around. On the surface, Percy might be another full-of-himself, egotistical TV personality, but Smallfoot has another path for Percy to follow (hint: He’s not the villain or even a villain). The villains in Smallfoot are more abstract: bigotry, ignorance (willful or otherwise), and tribalism (of all things).
If that sounds heavy for a family-oriented film, it’s because it is (heavy, that is). In a ballsy sequence between Migo and the Stonekeeper, Kirkpatrick lays out the tragic reasons for the Yetis’ self-imposed isolation from other primates, including humankind, turning Smallfoot into an unexpected, eventually touching plea for overcoming division based on superficial differences and embracing what we have in common instead (i.e., family, community). It might sound like a trite, obvious message, but it’s much needed one during divisive times. Smallfoot also suggests, however, that myths and stories can both illuminate the past and hide it too, but those myths and stories have their place and time and sometimes outlive both, creating the space for new, more inclusive myths and stories. Whatever moviegoers take away from Smallfoot, it certainly won’t be the usually obvious lessons typical of family-oriented, animated films.
Unfortunately, Smallfoot’s animation falls short – minus one or two sequences, including one involving a literal, Chuck Jones-inspired fall – of the story, characters, and themes. There’s little distinctive or imaginative about the Yeti tribe. Migo looks like a discarded, early gen render of Sully (Monster’s Inc.), minus the colored fur, while most of the secondary characters, Yeti and human alike, are difficult to distinguish from one another. At best, the mountain-top backdrops and snowscapes deliver a sense of scale and scope, but lack the detail and texture typical of animation efforts released by movie studios. Just as rare as Smallfoot’s willingness to tackle potentially difficult subjects through dialogue, story, and theme, not to mention song (snappy, if generic, pop tunes of the self-empowering kind), in a family-oriented film, it’s also just as rare for animation to deliver bland, uninspired visuals and underwhelming set pieces.