Movie Review: Dreamworks turns its eyes East for “Abominable”

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Dreamworks’ “Abominable,” not to be confused with Sony’s “Smallfoot” or Laika’s “Missing Link,” is an animated Chinese travelogue that tugs at the heartstrings.

That’s pretty much in lieu of laughs in this fluffy twist on a fantastic beasts and the land of wonders where you find them — Tibet, er, China.

Humor is in such short supply — four chuckles, tops — that you notice things like how the creature doesn’t look like a photo-real Yeti, or abominable snowman. He looks exactly like an animated plush toy.

And then there’s the story, which has a heroic, violin-playing Chinese teen (voiced by Chloe Bennet for English speaking audiences) and her two cousins trying to save the first-ever Yeti specimen captured from the people who captured him.

That would be an obsessed, aged British explorer (Eddie Izzard) and the scientist, apparently American, who did the actual capturing (Sarah Paulson).

The fact that the creature’s humming, which he does as he is about to do something “E.T.” magical, is unmistakably the tone of a Tibetan Monk’s Moan, “throat singing,” is a last bit of eyebrow raising detail.

So Dreamworks has made a movie designed to sell a plush toy and pander to not just the Chinese movie marketplace, but a Chinese worldview — anti-Western, with a dash ot Tibetan cultural (and territorial) appropriation.

The “just a kids’ cartoon” tale is about Yi (Bennet, of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D”), who lives with her mother (Michelle Wong) and Nai Nai (grandmother, voiced by Tsai Chin). She’s a loner, working odd jobs for extra cash after school, not fitting in with her cell-phone-and-fashion-obsessed peers, who include her vain cousin Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor of TV’s” Liv and Maddie”).

Yi’s Me Space is the roof of the apartment building where they all, and younger cousin Peng (Albert Tsai) live. It’s where she stashes her cash, saving for “my big trip across China,” and the post card collection her late father left her. It’s where she plays mournful Chinese folk melodies on the violin he left her.

Then this beast gets out of a vast containment facility and private soldiers with all the gear of an over-equipped police force set out to capture it. But Yi is the one who finds it — “him” — who, she gathers through visual cues, comes from Mount Everest.

Yi backs into the idea of taking him home, taking that “big trip” a lot sooner than she expected.

The cities are neon-and-LED lit metropolises, the rivers, forests and Gobi desert are pretty, if somewhat computer-animated generic, and the giant mountainside Buddha is the Leshan Buddha, a real bucket-list travel destination.

The jokes are of the slapstick variety — belches and vomit and mud and what not.

And lest one think this is just Chinese agitprop, with a Western conspiracy to snatch a Yeti from his natural home — Tibet, which has been occupied by China since the 1950s — there are subversive touches.

The police state nature of the villains’ minions suggest more than a mere private contractor, the joke about keeping a truck driver quiet after a Yeti road accident — “It’s a bribe.” — hints at corruption.

That unmistakable Tibetan monk moan, and casting an ethnic Tibetan (Trainor is the grandson of the Tibetan who was with Sir Edmund Hillary when he was the first to summit Mount Everest) as one of the voices are digs that won’t be repeated in the People’s Republic version of the movie.

“Abominable” isn’t a bad film, and the Chinese violin renders some moments quite touching. But it is dull and some of that comes from the similar animated films that beat it to market over the past year.

And some of it is the result of a script that has too little to it — too little originality, too few incidents, virtually no jokes.

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MPAA Rating: PG for some action and mild rude humor

Voice Cast: Chloe Bennett, Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Eddie Izzard, Sarah Paulson and James Hong
Credits: Directed by Jill Culton, Todd Wilderman, script by Jill Culton. A Dreamworks/Universal release.

Running time: 1:37

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