With Disney seeming to have moved on to relentlessly live-action remaking their entire back catalogue, it now behooves us to look to other studios for quality animation. With Hiyao Miyazaki returning in 2020, directing Studio Ghibli’s How Do I Live? , LAIKA Studios bringing us 2019’s Missing Link, and Aardman Animations releasing Early Man (2018) and Shaun the Sheep: Farmaggedon (2019) there is much to be excited about in the animation world, beyond The House of Mouse. Netflix are even playing Disney at their own game by releasing an extremely old-school-Disney-looking 2D animation called Klaus, directed by one of their former animators. DreamWorks Animation have already struck gold once this year with How to Train your Dragon 3 (2019), rounding out the stunning trilogy which has spanned the decade. They now return with Abominable, which very much feels part of the same style as the HTTYD Trilogy, as it pairs a human teenager with an seemingly-monstrous-but-actually-adorable creature, has jaw-dropping visuals and a luscious score. I am going to mention the fact (because unfortunately it is still notable) that like Frozen II which comes out later this year, Abominable is written and directed by a woman – in this case, Jill Culton.
Abominable starts with a family in Shanghai – teenager Yi (Chloe Bennet) lives with her Mum (Michelle Wong) and her Nai Nai (Tsai Chin). She is trying to avoid her grief over the death of her father by keeping busy at various summer jobs, so she can save up and take a trip across China that she had planned with her Dad. Living in the same apartment block is the shallow girlfriend-and-selfie-obsessed Jin (the extremely appropriately named Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and his cousin the basketball-obsessed Peng (Albert Tsai). Meanwhile, in a secret facility somewhere in the city, a yeti who has been captured by billionaire Burnish (Eddie Izzard) escapes the clutches of Dr Zara (Sarah Paulson). He ends up hiding on Yi’s roof, where she befriends him and names him Everest, based on the fact that he is attracted to a billboard with the mountain on, leading her to deduce that it must be his home. Yi helps Everest escape re-capture and Peng and Jin end up tagging along on what will become the epic journey to the Himalayas, firstly by boat. It becomes clear that Everest is no ‘ordinary’ yeti, when he emits a low hum, he can manipulate the natural world around him – by making blueberries grow, or trees glow or turning a field into a wave that can be surfed. These scenes provide the most spectacular highlights – they absolutely burst with colour and life.
Yi brings her beloved violin, which she inherited from her father, along on the journey. After the field-surfing incident, the violin breaks and Everest repairs it for her, using his own hair as strings. His magical properties transfer to the violin and when Yi plays it (which contributes to the gorgeous score), she can now affect nature also. Much of the enjoyment comes from the three mismatched friends bickering and bantering with each other and playing with Everest (who, it turns out, is a kid like them) as they traverse the jaw-dropping scenery of China. Burnish and Zara are always one step behind them, in hot pursuit, complete with Zara’s jerboa who rides on her shoulder like a daemon (if this is not persuading you to watch this film, then you and I are extremely different people). As is often the case with these films, the villain does not turn out to be who you expect and there are some twists and turns along the way.
Pretty much the only negative thing I can say about Abominable is that what should have been one of the most beautiful sequences is unfortunately paired with Coldplay’s extremely over-used Fix You. The violin-based score is sumptuous enough, without needing variations on tired pop songs slapped onto the soundtrack. This film is a great tourist film for China, showcasing some of its most well-known landmarks across the two and a half thousand mile journey (which they seem to mostly walk…?). There are some pretty heavy themes, from the fairly common zoological concerns (which also cropped in The Missing Link) of just leaving animals and creatures where they are instead of hunting or collecting them. But also the theme of Yi’s grief getting in the way of her appreciating the family that she has left and living her life to the fullest. As with all great animations, this means that the film can be enjoyed on multiple levels, by all members of the family. Here is hoping that this original story gains an audience and is a success, as there are several factors that could have encouraging knock-on effects if it does well at the box office. It’s not part of a franchise or the Disney behemoth, it has non-Western characters and setting and is written and directed by a woman. Abominable really deserves to be seen on a big screen, as it is just dazzlingly radiant to look at. Everest should become a beloved creation, very much in the vein of Toothless and the film has a funny and entertaining voice cast (particularly Izzard and Paulson). The family and the friendships at the centre of the story feel real and relatable, as fantastical elements only work if they swirl around something grounded in humanity. Abominable achieves this balance with some finely-tuned skill and as it is a rare animation that doesn’t have a huge team of writers, kudos must go to Culton.
Directed by: Jill Culton, Todd Wilderman
Written by: Jill Culton
Cast: Chloe Bennett, Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Eddie Izzard, Sarah Paulson, Michelle Wong