Located in the deepest recesses of the Warner Bros. vault are ninety years’ worth of animated entertainment, just ripe for the plucking, the cherishing, and the repurposing. The Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts. The Hanna-Barbera TV library. Too many DC Comics adaptations to name. Outside of Disney, perhaps no corporation has as wide and diverse an array of animation as Warner does.
It would be easy – particularly in today’s age of filmic familiarity – to allow spinoffs and reboots to dominate the studio’s current output. And indeed, Warner Bros. is not shy about clinging to its most cherished franchises, as the myriad Bugs Bunny and Scooby-Doo franchises can attest. The film studio’s animation department – revived in 2013 as Warner Animation Group (WAG) – has also leaned on audience awareness, chiefly through its Lego Movie franchise (which itself incorporates familiar characters like Batman and his fellow DC heroes).
In the era of reboots, remakes, and sequels, one wouldn’t necessarily expect Warner to put much stock in original films. But that’s what makes films like Smallfoot all the more refreshing.
True, Smallfoot is not a truly original property – it’s based on a children’s book by Sergio Pablos (best known as the creator of Despicable Me). And the story is itself steeped in long-established Bigfoot lore. But Smallfoot is still one of the fresher family films to hit theaters this year. And, more surprisingly, it’s one of the more thought-provoking ones as well.
I confess that I went into Smallfoot prepared to draw comparisons with WAG’s 2016 film Storks. Both movies were animated by Sony Pictures Imageworks, which imbues its CG-animated output with a zippy, rubbery feel (best noted in their work on Genndy Tartakovsky’s Hotel Transylvania films). But while Storks offered little beyond goofball entertainment, Smallfoot wants to be a bit more than a kid-pleasing popcorn-muncher.
Directed by Karey Kirkpatrick (Over the Hedge), Smallfoot tells the story of a yeti village in the Himalayas, far away from any prying human eyes. And no human eyes have pried – the yetis all believe that humans (or “smallfoots,” as they’re labeled) are simply a myth. When one Yeti, a well-meaning fellow named Migo (Channing Tatum), happens across a Smallfoot, he tries informing his fellow villagers of its existence, but no one will believe him. He sets out to prove his claim, journeying from the mountain to a nearby human village. (Well, “journeying” from the mountain may be the wrong word – let’s just say that the film involves a lot of plummeting.)
The thematic seeds are planted early. Led by a firm tribal chief, the Stonekeeper (Common), the yeti culture has their own belief system, including an elaborate explanation for the world’s origin (it’s both too funny and too immature for me to spoil here), and they cannot tolerate the idea of something upsetting those beliefs. The predicament literally humanizes itself once Migo reaches the world beneath the mountain, where an egotistical TV host named Percy (James Corden) encounters the yeti and lays plans to make himself rich from his discovery.
There’s an obvious religious allegory at work here, and it’s one that’ll resonate more easily with adults than children. But even some of the film’s simpler questions can carry weight with grown-ups as well: Is it better to maintain a lie, if the truth is too difficult? We were all taught at a young age that even if the truth hurts, we must tell the whole truth so that it may set us free. (Mixing metaphors, but I’m sure this was part of your grade school curriculum.) Yet even as adults, the temptation to believe the facts that comfort us, and are most easily acceptable to our viewpoints, is all too great. We all want to support the truth, but we’ve no problem ignoring facts that make said truth too painful.
Smallfoot understands this dilemma, and to the film’s credit, it refuses to make any of its colorful characters the decisive villain. The Stonekeeper initially appears to be a close-minded fundamentalist, but his conviction to yeti lore makes for one of the film’s more unexpected reveals. Percy may be a money-hungry opportunist, but he is not depicted as calculating or vindictive, and he engenders our sympathy early on by singing a hapless “Under Pressure” parody. (Most of the film’s songs are pretty forgettable, but James Corden and karaoke are always a good combination.)
Before the film is over, Smallfoot has turned into a story about tolerance and understanding – the fear the yetis have toward the smallfoots is reflected directly back by the humans. Metaphorically, the two species could stand in for opposing political factions, locals and immigrants, or any sort of dual culture split by man (or yeti)-made barriers. The resolution is predictable, but the film wisely holds off on spelling out the conflict.
This, ultimately, is both the film’s strength and weakness. Smallfoot has a promising message, and you get the sense that a more daring creative team would be willing to explore its darker, more damaging aspects. But WAG wanted to make the film easily consumable and marketable to young viewers (the yetis themselves are even less scary-looking than the cast of Monsters Inc.), and the film disappointingly opts for the safest possible conclusion.
This is not to say that Smallfoot is a bad film – on top of its messages, it’s filled with creative jokes (highlights include a disgruntled bear and a visual Pac-Man homage) and a decent voice cast. But given the deep ties that Warner has in the world of animation, one would expect something a little more daring and off-the-cuff. Smallfoot is better than it needs to be – but it deserves to leave a much larger footprint.
Smallfoot is currently playing in theaters.