By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“Abominable” opens with a monster-eye view shot, fairly long, of the monster’s escape from a high-security detention area. Large, strong, and not verbal but capable of emotive grunts and hums, the huge beast fights its way to freedom, into the city beyond its prison—which, we learn quickly, is Shanghai, China’s most populous urban area.
We never see the film’s action through the monster’s eyes again after that opening, but strictly speaking, we don’t need to. The monster turns out to be a yeti, a long way from its home in the Himalayas. He’s smart enough to hide from those hunting him, but not quite smart enough to get back home. He needs some folks to step inside his world, meet him halfway.
For that, he’ll need a little help from the urban side. The teenage girl Yi (voiced by Chloe Bennett, best known for her work on “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” TV series), keeps herself busy and as remote as possible from her mother (voiced by Michelle Wong) and her grandmother “Nai Nai” (voiced by Tsai Chin, who’s shot everything from James Bond films to “The Joy Luck Club”). Why Yi keeps herself so occupied isn’t clear at first, but as we spend more time with her, we learn her powerful and sad motivation.
Yi keeps to herself by choice, but she keeps getting mixed up with two kids from her building. Jin (voiced by Tenzing Norgay Trainor, grandson of Tenzing Norgay, one of the first men to stand atop Mount Everest), a suave, seriously vain ladies’ man and tiny but unstoppable ball of fire Peng (Albert Tsai, a Chinese American teenager and a veteran of several American TV shows).
Yi stumbles on the fugitive yeti, whom she names “Everest” (voiced by Joseph Izzo with the grunts, grumbles, and laughs, and bolstered by the movie’s composer, Rupert Gregson-Williams, for the beast’s musical moments). She’s frightened at first, but won over by Everest’s overpowering, sometimes slightly rude charm. Peng and Jin get in on the act and they decide the only thing to do is to guide Everest back home where he belongs.
It’s hardly that simple, of course. The prison Everest burst from belongs to the fabulously rich Mr. Burnish (voiced by idiosyncratic comedian Eddie Izzard), who considers the yeti his essential showpiece, and wants him back at any cost.
Burnish retains an ace yeti-lancer, zoologist Dr. Zara (voiced by award-winning actress Sarah Paulson).
As you can imagine, the discovery of a seven-foot tall, five-foot wide white fuzzy critter with bright blue eyes and white square teeth, would be more than enough to galvanize the scientific and biological realms, for decades to come. But that’s not all. The script, credited to co-director Jill Culton (with additional material from several other folks), allows for the forces of magic to intrude.
And here, I fear, lies the film’s essential weakness. Magic gets the yeti and his friends out of all and any tight spots, simply by its evocation. Consequently, we’re left with no real feeling of risk, or possible loss, in any situation. No matter what they face, the summoning of the supernatural will make it all better.
That being said, the film has much to recommend it. Co-directors Culton and Todd Wilderman keep the pace punchy, with occasional time-outs for the characters to reflect on what they’re doing right and wrong. Its visual palate never disappoints. Shanghai comes to life so convincingly you can practically smell the rotting fish, feel the roiling waterways, and taste Nai Nai’s steaming dumplings. As the foursome moves into wilderness, we get desert, sprouting green fields, hills, and our final destination, the frozen Himalayas themselves.
Although I wished for a more convincing plot and fewer stock characters, I found myself won over by “Abominable.” The kids in the audience I saw it with were won over as well, as they cheered and laughed in all the right places, giggled over the occasional bodily-function jokes, and leaned into big applause at the end. The kids are alright, both on and off-the screen. Even the big white fluffy kinds.
“Abominable” opens on Sept. 27 in theaters nationwide.
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.