Smallfoot is a light animated adventure set in a remote Himalayan village occupied by yetis, aka Abominable Snowmen (and Snowwomen), who have lived in isolation for generations. Though they have a complex societal hierarchy, the yetis are in many ways a primitive race. Their sacred stones tell them they are the only creatures in the world, that their mountain rests on a cloud held up by mammoths, and that they have to bang a gong each morning to make the great sky snail rise and shine its light on them. Nobody questions the yeti religion, least of all Migo (voice of Channing Tatum), our young protagonist, who opens the film by singing a song about how everything is great and he hopes nothing ever changes.
Well, tough luck, Migo. While outside the village one day, he encounters a legendary “smallfoot” — what you or I would call a “human man” — whose airplane (Migo doesn’t know what that is, either) has crashed nearby. The yetis’ tribal leader, the Stonekeeper (Common), has the carvings to show that smallfoots don’t exist and are merely a story that yetis tell their children — but Migo saw one. If the “no such thing as smallfoots” stone is inaccurate, what other traditions might be false? Next you’ll be telling him the sun will rise even if nobody bangs the gong…!
While Migo finds company with a handful of fellow smallfoot believers (including the Stonekeeper’s daughter, Meechee, voiced by Disney Channel star Zendaya), the smallfoot in question returns to human civilization, where news of his encounter reaches the ears of a TV-nature-show host named Percy (James Corden), who’d like to get a real yeti on camera but will settle for dressing his assistant in a yeti costume. Naturally, Percy and Migo do meet, are terrified but intrigued by one another, and must teach their respective races not to be ruled by fear and prejudice, et cetera.
It’s comfortable territory for an animated comedy, executed with cheerful aplomb by director Karey Kirkpatrick (Over the Hedge), who wrote the jaunty screenplay with Clare Sera from a story credited to Cats & Dogs writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.* That means there was a lot of rewriting (and check out that asterisk), but the film is more lucid and cohesive than script-by-committee projects usually are. There are many fine gags about Migo and the yetis misunderstanding human artifacts (they assume a roll of toilet paper is the equivalent of their stones, calling it “the scroll of invisible wisdom”), and good slapsticky shenanigans. I have a low tolerance for James Corden’s unctuous shtick, even in animated form, and having him sing a loose karaoke parody of “Under Pressure” is not a good way to change my opinion, but the rest of the voice cast — including LeBron James, Danny DeVito, Gina Rodriguez, Yara Shahidi, and “Rick and Morty’s” Justin Roiland — is charming and energetic.
Besides learning to communicate with and understand those who are different from you, the film has another straightforward, unmissable message: Accept the truth, no matter how uncomfortable or scary it is. Don’t assume your traditions are correct just because they’re yours. It would be fair to interpret this as being skeptical of religion, but the movie emphasizes that these are yeti “traditions,” not spiritual beliefs; there’s no mention of yeti deity or heaven or anything like that. (I called it “religion” earlier, but that was my word, not the movie’s.) The lesson isn’t to discard your beliefs, only to examine them. Anyway, the point is, I don’t want to hear from people who think Smallfoot is trying to get their kids to become atheists.
*Warner Bros. says it was all based on a book called Yeti Tracks by Sergio Pablos (who’s also an executive producer) — but as far as I can tell, no such book exists. The only references to it online are in articles about Smallfoot. A badly copy-edited interview with Ficarra and Requa suggests they never read it, either, but merely had it described to them. When Smallfoot was announced, the press release said Pablos (who created Despicable Me) would direct, and that Ficarra and Requa’s screenplay would be based on “an original idea” by him. That’s how the Sergio Pablos Animation Studios blog describes it, too. In other words, even Pablos himself doesn’t claim to have written a book called Yeti Tracks, but that’s where the credits say it came from. Who says studio marketers aren’t creative?