The Warner Animation Group has slowly become one of the more legitimate competitors against Disney in recent years taking small steps with the LEGO movie franchise and “Storks” to prove itself as the latest incarnation of WB’s animation studio. So, it’s fitting that those small steps would lead to a new animation feature called “Smallfoot” which, despite my horrendous failure of calling it a Sony film in last week’s Box Office Breakdown, is in fact Warner Animation Group’s newest offering. Taking a subversive take on the legends of Bigfoot and the Yeti “Smallfoot” sought to continue to legitimize Warner Animation Group as a force to be reckoned with in the industry. Does it succeed? Let’s find out in my review of “Smallfoot”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
“Smallfoot” takes place high above a mountain in a world occupied by yetis who follow the rules of society passed down on stones to an elder called the Stonekeeper. The society has an extensive mythology and believe humans, which they call Smallfoot, are simply a legend and myth. One day a yeti named Migo (Channing Tatum) comes across a plane crash and sees a Smallfoot with his own eyes but when he arrives back at the village to tell his story without hard evidence he is shunned and exiled by the condescending Stonekeeper (Common) for spreading dangerous lies. Migo is recruited by a group of yetis called the Smallfoot Evidentiary Society composed of the Stonekeeper’s daughter and Migo’s crush Meechee (Zendaya), the massive Gwangi (LeBron James), Kolka (Gina Rodriguez) and short yeti Flem (Ely Henry) to help prove that the Smallfoot are real which leads Migo down the mountain to the world of humans. There he encounters Percy Patterson (James Corden) a former TV star and animal show host looking to reclaim his fame. Migo brings Patterson back to the yeti home to prove his story however this causes Migo to uncover a deeper conspiracy that forces him to question what is better, a peaceful existence based on ignorance or facing the realities of the world head on.
“Smallfoot” sports and interestingly diverse cast of up-and-coming stars and established names providing the voices for the yetis and the humans. On the Yeti side the starring role goes to Channing Tatum who plays Migo, the protagonist of the story who discovers that Smallfoots actually exist. He is flanked by Zendaya as Migo’s love interest Meechee as well as the likes of LeBron James, Gina Rodriquez, Danny Devito and others who play an assortment of different yetis in the tribe. Most of the cast is very capable and fitting of their roles with Tatum, Devito and Sendaya specifically turning in exceptionally good voicework. One of the most glaring errors of “Smallfoot” though is that some of the characters are actually poorly cast, granted their few and far between. Common for me just didn’t work as the Stonekeeper. His voice isn’t fitting of the character’s design nor does it give the sense of authority required for the role. Honestly it feels like Common was cast simply to perform a rap song that the Stonekeeper takes part in during the second act. Ironically enough Common stands out as a negative because everyone else is pretty well cast, even LeBron James of all people. The rest of the voices tend to match the characters making Common feel more like a token addition to the cast than a properly assigned voice actor fitting of the character he plays.
One the human side we have one major character, James Corden as Percy Patterson and, like Common, I feel like this was a poorly cast voice for the character. I mean James Corden isn’t BAD in this role. In fact, he’s a very good vocal performer. I enjoyed him in “Peter Rabbit” and he was one of the VERY few redeemable aspects of “The Emoji Movie” but in those films his voice fit the design of the characters. Here it doesn’t. Corden’s performance works with Percy’s personality but still feels out of place. It’s not the kind of voice I expected from the character and it didn’t get any better as the movie progressed. The odd thing is I didn’t mind the Percy character. I think he’s a well-developed and detailed personality. I also think Corden’s performance is very good, but something just doesn’t add up for me. It kind of took me out of the movie and, like Common, it felt more like a token casting choice than an actual attempt to find someone who could match the character’s appearance. While Corden and Common aren’t bad actors, in fact both do provide decent performances in their own right, neither of them match the characters they were chosen to play and both feel like they were cast for the purpose of performing musical numbers. However, the rest of the cast is perfectly fine. They’re so well cast in fact that they make these two poor casting choices stick out like sore thumbs.
I have to admit it took a while for me to get into “Smallfoot”. For the first half of the film I was curious as to what the point was or if it was simply going to be a film about humans meeting legendary monsters. But “Smallfoot” is much more than just a subversive take on the classic monster myth. The second half of the film kicks things into high gear and delves into a story that touches on some very timely social commentary asking viewers, young and old, whether ignorance is truly bliss or if knowing the harsh realities is more important to being a free person. It’s a mature moral conundrum that feels perfectly fitting of the setup and scenario and considering that this is an animated film targeting kids it seeks to inspire today’s youth to think about the concept without being pretentious or political. The best animated films aren’t just color and fun, they also incorporate a good learning opportunity and while “Smallfoot” might take a little too long to get to the point by the end of it all it proves to have a powerful, sincere and relevant moral core that allows it to resonate with both it’s target youth viewership and the parents who will inevitably be dragged to the experience probably against their will.
“Smallfoot” also looks great. It’s got a well defined and detailed atmosphere, creative character designs and some beautiful backdrops that brought me right into the world of the yetis and humans. It’s immersive and inspired with each yeti having their own characteristic and the humans looking less like caricatures and more like unique people in a society. You can tell there was a lot of care and talent put into making the hairs on the yetis flow seamlessly and there are a lot of cool little details to the imagination that you often don’t find outside of the meticulous minds of Pixar. I think the last time I saw an animated feature this visually appealing outside of a Disney product was maybe “How to Train Your Dragon 2”. I think it’s a huge step in the right direction for Warner Animation Group and the animators involved. “Smallfoot” is eye catching and colorful and contains a fun spirit that doesn’t shy away from blending maturity with child friendly flare. I couldn’t help but enjoy the experience overall despite some obvious flaws. And that brings me to…
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
The biggest flaw with “Smallfoot” is that at times it tries too hard to hit all the seemingly required clichés of modern animated movies. It includes several musical numbers and goofy comedic antics but they take away from the flow of the movie. Migo’s first experience at the foot of the mountain involves him being trapped in a large snowball which feels like pure, kid-friendly filler. The musical numbers are not cohesive to the narrative either. That’s not to say the songs don’t match the scenario, but there’s no transition. If you want to include songs in the story fine, Disney does it all the time. But what makes it work so well in Disney movies is that the songs feel like they belongs in that moment of the film and are worked seamlessly into the character interactions and scenarios. In “Smallfoot” the musical numbers come out of nowhere and often feel forcibly inserted into the action with little context or purpose other than entertaining kids with a catchy tune to keep them invested. Most of the movie is easy to invest in when you follow the story, but these sudden departures into random songs disrupt the flow of the film and feel very abrupt.
The story structure of “Smallfoot” is also pretty off. As I said already the first half of the film takes a while to get through with some odd pacing that left me wishing the movie would get to the point. The first half and second half of this movie felt like two very different films to me. The first half feels super kid-friendly without focus or purpose while the second half proves that the final result is worth the wait and is much better paced, contains much less filler and incorporates the actual point of this movie which is to teach viewers a lesson about whether knowledge is power or a curse. So it does take a lot of patience to get through “Smallfoot” or to put it another way, and use a horrible play on words in the process, it takes a while for “Smallfoot” to find its footing. Once it does the movie is fine but as seems to be a theme with this movie the flow is interrupted constantly leaving “Smallfoot” feeling like the start of something good but not quite what it could have and should have been. A little more polish could have made this a truly great animated feature instead of just a decent animated offering.
While it’s not perfect I did enjoy “Smallfoot”. I really do feel like it shows a lot of potential from Warner Animation Group that they can produce some neat stories with genuinely thought-provoking concepts while also pandering a bit to the core child audience. It’s far from perfect though. Some of the performers were poorly cast in my opinion and the pacing gets interrupted by random song sequences and a slow first half. “Smallfoot” eventually finds its footing though and turns out to be a beautifully rendered, mostly well performed and surprisingly deep narrative that also serves as a fun and unique change-up of the yeti and Bigfoot legends. Kids will love it no doubt and there’s enough here to make the experience worth the time for adults too. While Disney might dominate the animation scene it’s nice to see other studios provide something legitimately watchable. “Smallfoot” is a perfectly harmless and entertaining piece that shows a lot of potential and promise for its studio in the years to come.