I’m so torn with Abominable. On the one hand, there is a strong theme of identity and one’s upbringing on display here, delivered by important voices: Director Jill Culton creates a young female voice in the form of Yi. DreamWorks works one last time with Oriental DreamWorks (now titled Pearl Studio), and Abominable’s core family is a mixture of Chinese heritage and Hollywood storytelling. That last part is the biggest downfall, I’m afraid. Abominable has so much promise, and yet (like many family films of this kind) it relies on conventions and tired jokes. There are flashes of brilliance that make the film worth a shot, but they’re found amongst uninspired priorities. A stunning moment late into the film feels so inclined to stuff Coldplay’s “Fix You” in, and it turns a tender scene into a tired surrender. Luckily, right afterwards, the scene is redeemed, but that’s the kind of back-and-forth Abominable exudes.
What works as redemption here? Well, the deeper into the film’s lore we go, the better the animation gets. We start off with standard imagery in a CGI animated film in 2019, but you may be left with your jaw agape towards the end. It’s a savouring of hidden gems that makes the journey to the Himalayas at least carry interesting turns. Plus, we’re dealing with a mysterious and gifted yeti here (named “Everest” by Yi). I feel like similar films duck-out of the hidden qualities of a magical creature; that, or they feel a bit too intangible. Everest actually has a set of skills that stay within a reasonable range, and they keep coming. It’s a bonding experience that helps you stay interested in both the mission and the main beast of interest.
It’s too bad that the most of the opening parts feel so typical. Abominable clearly has a story to tell, and a creative means of doing so, but that makes the safer moments all the more frustrating. This includes plot conveniences that are borderline silly (like someone waking up at exactly the right time; see the film to know what I mean). The pros and cons can be found simply in the villains alone: one villain has a pretty unexpected turn, while the other is a painfully obvious twist (can you guess which is which?). A touching scene will finish, and then an unneeded pop culture reference or juvenile moment will be tossed in. There’s nothing completely gross (like toilet humour), but it’s the usual checklist jokes and criteria that ruins the flow of a film with something more going on.
By the end, you’re witnessing almost the polar opposite of how you start. You begin with a bit of a bore containing a few decent moments, and you end with a much better film that is slightly held back by some sterile choices. What I can see is a huge amount of promise from Pearl Studio. I can’t tell if the holding-back is by DreamWorks or by Pearl (considering previous collaborations include the great How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Kung Fu Panda 3, but also the shrug-worthy Home and Penguins of Madagascar). This is clearly the final send off, and a signal of what we may be getting in the future (Pearl’s next film is Over the Moon through Netflix). We could get new voices stymied by studio comfort zones, or we could get glimpses into something much better. I started Abominable with many eye rolls, but ended it with my eyes glued to the screen. I hope Pearl Studio exhibits more of that special animation, where millions of petals cascade like water, ice shimmers like city lights, and hearts are touched. If so, Abominable is, indeed, the trip home that the mainstream animation industry could desperately use.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.