I didn’t go into Smallfoot with high expectations. A 3D animated movie about a society of Yeti encountering a human or “smallfoot,” for kids, is not something that promises high expectations. I’m a cynical and jaded old man, I know.
But Smallfoot is so much more daring in the ideas it tackles that it’s a shame the technical aspects don’t measure up as well. Smallfoot, is as if Inherit The Wind was a musical for kids. Karey Kirkpatrick, the director, has gone and made an anti-totalitarian fable for kids. The totalitarianism it argues is a regime of ideas and beliefs as opposed to an individual.
Kirkpatrick, along with co-writer Clare Sera, realizes that children are naturally curious and are brimming with questions. But most films aimed at children often try to play both sides. Films aimed at kids often tell them that curiosity is a grand thing but so is belief. Often times the power of belief is given more credibility over the power of asking “Why?”
Migo (Channing Tatum) is the son of Dorgle (Danny DeVito) the gong ringer. The gong ringer is a very important job because ringing the gong awakens the light snail to rise into the sky and give us light. The mountaintop in which Migo, Dorgle, and the other Yetis live sits atop a circle of yaks; beneath the yaks there is nothingness.
We know all of this because Migo tells us, and Migo knows these things because these facts are written down on the stones. The stones guide not just their way of life but how they view their role and existence. Because of this, there are a great many stones, so many they are made into a robe worn by the Stonekeeper (Common), the de facto leader of the Yetis.
One day Migo is called by the Stonekeeper to be an apprentice Gong Ringer. Overjoyed, father and son go about getting ready for a practice run. Ringing the gong requires a complicated set of gears and hamster like wheels to operate a giant slingshot to fly across the valley into the gong placed above the town. As Migo situates himself into the sling, Dorgle gives him the three basic rules of gong ringing: 1.) Check your wind. 2.) Make sure your aim is true 3.) Make sure to hit it with your head, it’s going to hurt, but it’s the only way.
Migo discovers a smallfoot, a plane crash survivor after he misses the gong and lands outside the village. The discovery sends Migo into a spiral. The stones say there are no smallfeet. The stones are never wrong but what if they might be?
Back home he discovers there is a group of Yetis, the S.E.S. (Smallfeet Evidentiary Society). They meet in secret to discuss such blasphemous ideas such as smallfeet, The S.E.S. consists of Gwangi (LeBron James), a large purple furball who has been branded as crazy for his beliefs, Kolka (Gina Rodriguez), one of two female yeti, and Flem (Ely Henry), the loud-mouthed, obnoxious comedy relief.
The S.E.S. is led by Meechee (Zendaya), the daughter of the Stonekeeper. Meechee and Migo share a natural affinity for each other and can’t help but be in awe of the other’s ideas. Migo and Meechee’s relationship is never really the driving force, nor is it really a subplot. Smallfoot is much too interested in its ideas to really care about any of that.
Migo’s excitement about seeing a smallfoot ends with him being banished for contradicting the stones. So he decides to prove they exist and, with the help of the S.E.S., goes to capture one. The very act of going beneath the clouds that surround the mountaintop is mortally terrifying for them. After all, beneath the clouds lies yaks, and after that, nothing.
To Migo’s surprise and awe there is something slightly more than nothing beneath the clouds. He doesn’t just find one he finds an entire world. He meets Percy (James Corden), a host for a once popular wildlife show. Struggling with debt and desperate for a hit we find Percy on the verge of faking a Yeti encounter just for some “views.”
His assistant Brenda (Yara Shahidi) begs Percy to reconsider. In one of only two songs worth mentioning Percy tells her of the pressure of trying to survive in a world where entertainment is king and education is not. Sadly it’s memorable not because of the lyrics but because Percy sings this song at a karaoke bar to David Bowie’s Under Pressure.
More than anything you wish they would have just played Under Pressure and kept the accompanying visuals. For the most part, Smallfoot is colorful if visually functional animated movie. But during Corden’s song, the animation shows a brash visual life that is lacking for much of the film. The images aren’t so much new but the use of montages is on par with something out of Pixar.
Now, adults can clearly see how this is going to play out. But the kids won’t and that’s who Kirkpatrick and Sera are aiming at. What transpires is an effective exploration of the complexity of history and the power of acknowledging past sins.
Kirkpatrick and Sera go places that most children’s entertainment blithely ignore. Most movies would have had the Stonekeeper be some sort of Machiavellian villain. Instead, he is a yeti who has treated one child with love an respect, Meechee, and another with disdain and anger, Thorp (Jimmy Tatro). The storyline is not as fleshed out or as nuanced as the others but it bleeds through every once and a while, especially at the end.
Refreshingly, Smallfoot isn’t just about “truth” and how it makes everything so simple. Quite the opposite in fact. It argues it makes things much more complex. After Migo is banished, Dorgle is left to set up the complex gong ringing contraption himself. Because of this, he’s late and misses the gong but lands on the edge of the tower. But before he can ring it he notices the “light snail” rising without him. “If I’m not the gong ringer, who am I?”
Smallfeet is juggling so many ideas that it sometimes becomes irritating as we have to sit through yet another forgettable pop ballad. Though Common has a song where he tells Migo the reason for why they hide. Common’s talent and skill elevate the song to being far above everything else that has come before it.
Even the ending is rare for its ambiguity. Smallfoot refuses to tell kids it has all the answers. It wants kids to know that sometimes the answers aren’t easy and can’t be fit into an easy ten-word answer.
I just wish the characters were a little more fleshed out. Meechee, Kolka, Flem, Gwangi, and Brenda all show promise of being interesting characters but their growth seems of little interest to Kirkpatrick and Sera. After all, what is the purpose of getting such stars as LeBron James, Gina Rodriquez, and Zendaya, if you give them to nothing to do? Meecha has a small role, granted, but it’s hardly an arc and she ends up being saved by Migo.
The Stonekeeper’s relationship with his son Thorp is too truncated for it to have any real meaning. I kept forgetting that Thorp, Meecha, and the Stonekeeper were actually a family. Meecha founded the S.E.S. and yet Smallfoot never realizes just how brave it was of her, being the Stonekeeper’s daughter, to do so.
The ideas and subtext of Smallfoot outpace everything else Kirkpatrick has to offer. Visually, as I’ve stated before, it’s fine. The humor works best when it takes its cues from the likes of Looney Tunes. But the scenes between the big ideas is where Smallfoot has trouble keeping its balance. Mercifully it is short and hardly feels it’s length. Honestly, I’m much more enthralled by the guts of Smallfoot than I am by its messiness or failure of to pull it off completely.
2018 has seen kids movie tackle immigration and kindness (Paddington 2), the notion of unjust laws as well as critiquing gender norms, (Incredibles 2), and the daunting power of grief and loss (The House with a Clock in Its Walls). Smallfoot is not as good as Incredibles 2 or Paddington 2 but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong on the same list.
Smallfoot has something to say and its heart is in the right place. But more importantly, it has faith in the intelligence of its intended audience, kids. Flawed, it may be, but it achieves its intended purpose. In the end, your kids will likely have something most movies don’t want them to have, but something all art strives to inspire; it will leave them with questions.