Producers John Requa and Glenn Ficarra have generally kept a wide berth between their kid-friendly projects (“Storks,” “Cats & Dogs”) and their more adult material (“Bad Santa,” “I Love You Phillip Morris”). The best parts of “Smallfoot” see them finding a middle ground, espousing plot points and messaging that you don’t usually find in family fare.
Lurking within this animated tale of yetis and humans are such forward-thinking notions as, “Question everything, including religion,” “Governments use public safety as an excuse for misleading the populace when they really just want to control people,” and “Tribalism benefits people in power more than the communities they claim to want to protect.”
Heady stuff for a mainstream cartoon, but unfortunately “Smallfoot” can’t bear the weight of its big ideas, saddled as it is with fairly mediocre animation, mostly forgettable songs and a resolutely by-the-numbers screenplay by director Karey Kirkpatrick (“Over the Hedge”) and Clare Sera, adapting Sergio Pablos’ book “Yeti Tracks.”
The story begins high, high up the Himalayas, where a village of yeti peacefully coexist, each member of the community doing his or her job to wake up the giant bright snail that travels across the sky (other civilizations know this as the sun) or to make ice orbs to cool down the mammoths that hold up the earth. Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum), like most of the rest of his yeti comrades, never asks too many questions, choosing instead to tamp them down deep inside, just like the elder Stonekeeper (Common) instructs.
Migo hopes to inherit the family business of waking up the snail by flying headfirst into a gong every morning, and he’s apprenticing to his once-tall father Dorgle (Danny DeVito). But when Migo misses the gong and catapults over the village wall, he encounters a flying metal object that comes crashing down. And inside that object: a mythical Smallfoot. (Other civilizations know them as human beings.)
The village isn’t receptive to this news, since it contradicts the Stonekeeper’s version of events, and if one stone isn’t true, maybe none of them are. Migo is banished from the village, but he encounters other yeti who suspect that the Stonekeeper isn’t telling them everything, and maybe even that Smallfoots are real. Among this group is the Stonekeeper’s daughter Meechee (Zendaya), on whom Migo has always had a crush.
At the foot of the Himalayas, desperate animal-show host Percy (James Corden) is trying to get his producer to put on a yeti costume so they can create a viral video and boost his ratings. So when Percy encounters Migo — who has been lowered from the mountain by his pals in the Smallfoot Evidentiary Society — he doesn’t run screaming. By the time Migo drags Percy up to the village, it’s time for yetis and humans to acknowledge each other’s existence, but the Stonekeeper has some hard truths for Migo, ones that force him to have to decide whether maintaining his society’s myths and legends is more important than speaking the truth.
Kudos to any movie where the female lead is a scientist and seeker of the truth — Zendaya gets the film’s one good song, “Wonderful Life,” that’s all about asking questions and not settling for conventional wisdom — but “Smallfoot” undoes its best features by being so aggressively bland. For the most part, the characters are neither visually nor narratively compelling, and the voice work by Tatum and Corden isn’t nearly dynamic enough, considering how much of the film is devoted to them.
To the movie’s credit, there’s a funny running gag involving how yetis hear humans (speaking in a high-pitched series of squeaks) and vice versa (fearsome monster yowling), and there’s a scene involving Migo and a suspension bridge that’s one of the best bits of sustained physical comedy since the china-shop sequence in “Ferdinand.”
Still, for all its deviation from kid-movie norms in terms of its moral lessons — “Smallfoot” is closer to Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon” than the usual you-can-do-it pep talk — there’s a lot of familiarity here, from the inevitable climactic chase scene to Migo’s opening number, which has more than a whiff of the “Everything Is Awesome” world-building of “The Lego Movie.” (Speaking of that opening number, can we please retire songs that involve ukuleles and whistling, since those accompaniments can now be heard in pretty much every TV commercial for healthy breakfast products?)
“Smallfoot” provides more complex food for thought than most mainstream animation, but the overall results are still disappointingly bland.