Arts movie review

Spotting human tracks in the snow

‘Smallfoot’ brings yeti and human together in surprising fashion

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The four yeti, Meechee (voiced by Zendaya), Gwangi (voiced by LeBron James) Kolka (voiced by Gina Rodriguez), and Fleem (voiced by Ely Henry) discover the human Percy (voiced by James Corden) in the film 'Smallfoot.'
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Written by Karey Kirkpatrick
Based on book Yeti Tracks by Sergio Pablos
Directed by Karey Kirkpatrick and Clare Sera
Starring Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, LeBron James, Gina Rodriguez, Danny DeVito
Rated PG, Now Playing

Smallfoot’s premise is an amusing twist on the Bigfoot legend: a Bigfoot discovering that the “smallfoot” (i.e., a human) exists. Living in a secluded village governed by the Stonekeeper, this yeti community believes their mountain sits atop woolly mammoths hidden by clouds atop a void (à la Discworld). The Stonekeeper has the final word. The stones he wears bear the truth, and all yetis must believe it. This is not a new premise — the dystopian genre plays with censorship often — but this is a children’s film. Sitting in the theater, I was curious how this would play out.

One stone notes that the sun is a flying snail across the sky. Migo comes from a line of gong ringers: yetis are slingshot through the sky every dawn to ring the gong (their heads collide with the metal gong every day) and call forth this snail sun. Migo tries to make his father proud and impress the Stonekeeper’s daughter Meechee. But during his trial run, Migo is catapulted through the air, misses the gong, and flies out of the village. He comes across a human pilot who crash-landed and is excited by his smallfoot discovery. But before he can bring his yeti friends the proof, all evidence is blown away by the wind. When the Stonekeeper tries to hide the truth, Migo disagrees and is banished.

Migo meets others who agree with him (including the Stonekeeper’s daughter Meechee) and takes a journey down into the void below the clouds to the foot of the mountain. We know there isn’t nothing; we exist after all. But they don’t know tha, and the comedic opportunities are endless.

The human Percy Patterson, a wildlife enthusiast and filmmaker, is losing viewers on his show. Seeking his former glory, he intends to wear a yeti costume to fool his watchers. In a comedic twist, he meets the ticket to glory: a real yeti in the form of Migo, who falls into a human town. Migo interprets Percy’s screams as smallfoot singing while Migo’s excitement is understood as a beast’s roar. But they learn to understand each other, and soon, Migo brings Percy back to the yeti village. Percy meets the yetis and rediscovers his passion for wildlife education again. Migo discovers the Stonekeeper has hidden the truth from the yetis to protect them from humans.

What ensues is predictable: Percy and Migo become the ambassadors of sorts to the two societies. There are misunderstandings — Percy can’t survive in the thin atmosphere, Migo lies to his village to prevent them from seeking out humans, Percy must save Migo by tranquilizing him — but the film chooses to believe in the good of humanity. I’m not so sanguine, but I can’t fault the film for its uplifting ending. Smallfoot has a great faith in humans and yetis, who in spite of their selfish fumblings are merely fearful of the unknown. Migo realizes, quite wisely, that humans draw weapons not because they are monsters, but because they think the yetis are, and vice versa.

The film is stylized as a typical animated children’s film. The plot is more or less predictable, and the humor isn’t from clever wordplay. But while it’s funny that every gong ringer’s head is flattened over the years, you must also ask: what do you do when you realize that you sacrificed your head for nothing? That your family history was based on lies? And that all your foundational beliefs are wrong? The sun rises without anyone calling it, after all. The film’s motto is to ask questions and look deeper into the world, but it also suggests an introspective examination of ourselves.

As an animated children’s film, Smallfoot could have gone wrong. But it didn’t. Instead, Smallfoot was an animated children film whose slapstick Tom-and-Jerry humor and catchy tunes mask its sensitive approach to criticizing censorship, discrimination, and the fear of the unknown. In our era of “fake news” and debates over government censorship, this lighthearted meeting between human and yeti could teach us a lot about ourselves and the adult world we have to answer for.