Dreamworks basically has two types of films: the pop-culture reference heavy comedy-based films (“Trolls, “The Boss Baby”), and the more dramatic emotionally based films (“Kung Fu Panda,” “How to Train Your Dragon”). That’s not to say that elements of both don’t blend back and forth in some films (“Shrek”), but most of their catalog can be split like this.
The last film they did with an outside studio, 2017’s “Captain Underpants” fell squarely into the comedic category, and now their second, a co-production with Chinese based Pearl Studio, looks to be a more dramatic affair.
“Abominable (2019)” clearly has not suffered visually as a result of the co-production. The film is gorgeous, pull some real-life landscapes for beautiful sweeping vistas. The characters are expressive and extremely charming, and while the Yeti, known as Everest, is clearly a member of the Toothless or Stitch style of cute, yet threatening, he’s still very adorable and huggable.
The voice cast manages to deliver some pretty good work here. Chloe Bennet (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) has a sweet and charming performance as the main character Yi. Her chemistry with Everest is good and sells their quickly forged friendship. Albert Tsai (“Trophy Wife,” “Dr. Ken”) is a comedic highlight as the young Peng, but that’s about all his character brings to the table. The same goes for Tenzing Norgay Trainor (“Liv & Maddie”) who is good here, and his “hip” dialogue doesn’t sound cringey thanks to his delivery, but he doesn’t really do much more than just fine.
If there is a standout, it would be Eddie Izzard (“The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” “Cars 2”) as Dr. Burnish. His character is right next to Yi in their complexity, and he’s thankfully allowed to be fleshed out more than one might first assume. Sarah Paulson (“Glass,” “American Horror Story”) meanwhile is fine as Dr. Zara. Nothing more, nothing less, and almost forgettable.
Unfortunately, this is a theme in much of “Abominable.” The characters are sweet, the world is gorgeous, and the messages are heartwarming, but all of these have been done better in other films. It actually does succeed in blending the comedic and dramatic in such a way that neither overpowers the other. A moment of sadness with Yi remembering her father and a comedic moment involving Everest and some flowers both feel tonally at home.
There are elements to admire as well. Yi is a protagonist who is never forced to abide by the whims of those around her. If more time were given to flesh out her motivations, she could have been the next great animated female protagonist. As it stands, she’s just fine. Her love of music, specifically her violin, is integrated into the film really well, and the overall musical through line is well produced. But it doesn’t really add much to the film overall.
Moments of plot frustration also crop up that may leave some audiences scratching their heads. Writer/Director Jill Culton (“Open Season,” “Monsters, Inc.”) has a few twists pop up that don’t have the impact they should, and some moments of conflict are resolved virtually instantly. The ending especially feels anticlimactic, especially since it seems to be building to something bigger. It all feels like it’s made up of a series of strong moments, with less strong moments in between, but that never feel cohesive or come into their own.
The themes of music and family, while not particularly new, are done with professionalism and grace, as is the Chinese influence. This isn’t a film that takes the trappings of Chinese characters and twists them into a fantastical world. It’s a real-world setting, and these elements are integrated respectfully and admirably.
Wonderful animation and gorgeous vistas back a story with great moments, but it never feels like it comes into its own. A bit anti-climactic, but its messages are clear. The incorporation of Chinese culture is admirable and fleshes the world out considerably, but at the end of the day it is a beautifully told story made up of pieces and plot beats of better stories. It’s a fun diversion, but hopefully if Pearl and Dreamworks continue this collaboration, it’ll result in more unique films. 3/5