They may not be willing to admit it, but DreamWorks Animation is no longer the top dog in American animation.
They were for a time. After all, 2001’s “Shrek” was the first film to win the Best Animated Feature Academy Award and 10 of DreamWorks’ other films have been nominated for the honor. During their heyday, DreamWorks would regularly release movies that would bring in over $600 million worldwide.
But that was then. DreamWorks released 19 films during the 2010’s and only six of those have received Academy Award nominations. If you don’t count the films that Aardman Animation has released under the DreamWorks banner, four of DreamWorks’ 10 lowest grossing movies of all time were released in the past decade. This, along with the fact that the company has been passed around by distributors like a hot potato over the past decade (moving from Paramount to 20th Century Fox to Universal), suggests that this is a company unsure of how to compete in a field that is now dominated by Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks’ own corporate sibling Illumination.
You would think that “Abominable”, a co-production between DreamWorks and the China-based Pearl Studio, could be a return to form for them. Director Jill Culton wrote an original story – making “Abominable” the first film from DreamWorks to not be based on a book, TV show, movie or toy in over six years. Culton enlisted hundreds of top-flight animators to bring the tale to life and even went for the emotional jugular in her script.
But it still doesn’t add up, and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s because Culton’s script borrows liberally from such kiddie classics as “E.T”, “Lilo and Stich”, “How to Train Your Dragon”, “The Iron Giant” and every other story where a misunderstood child forms a bond with a magical creature.
In this story, that magical creature is a yeti named Everest and that child is a Chinese teenage girl named Yi (voiced by Chloe Bennett of TV’s “Agents of Shield”), who is still reeling from the death of her father. Yi has been pulling away from friends and family since her dad’s death, but the yeti hiding on her rooftop cannot be ignored, and she embarks on a mission to return him to his home on Mount Everest.
Yi is joined by two neighbors – the social media-obsessed Jin (Tenzeng Norgray Trainor) and basketball-loving goofball Peng (Albert Tsai, a vocal standout) – and the foursome are pursued by a millionaire (Eddie Izzard) and a zoologist (Sarah Paulson) who might be good, evil or somewhere in-between.
The yeti, it should be mentioned, also has ill-defined superpowers for some reason. He can control nature, and this can mean anything from conjuring an avalanche of giant blueberries to riding clouds shaped like Koi fish. This is all nonsense of course, but it does lead to some of the film’s most strikingly beautiful scenes.
If you have seen other variations of the boy-and-his-magical-creature subgenre, the plot will have few surprises for you and, unlike previous DreamWorks films, “Abominable” is distressingly low on laughs. The brotherly relationship between Peng and the yeti (They play thumb war and bump fists) gets a few smiles at least.
Culton’s attempts to deal with the serious subject of grief are worth applauding, but are undercut every time the movie stops dead for a vomit or pee joke. There are fewer pop culture references than you might expect from a DreamWorks film, but there is a reference to 90’s Miami bass group Tag Team of all things. And, yes, that is the one time I laughed out loud during the entire film.
The film borrows liberally from Pixar- not only in the character design of Paulson’s zoologist, who is a dead ringer for Merida from “Brave”, but in the attempts at extracting tears from the audience. The emotion falls flat on just about every occasion – a sure sign of a weak script.
I wouldn’t be surprised if young children found this to be an entertaining enough diversion, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if they were bored silly. There just isn’t enough- not enough laughs, not enough emotion, not enough visual splendor- to make any sort of impression.
I didn’t hate “Abominable” (rated PG for some action and mild rude humor), and I imagine I am going to like it much more than “Trolls World Tour”, which is coming out in April. It is perfectly serviceable and completely inoffensive. But when that’s the nicest thing I (and many other critics) can bring myself to say about the film, it’s just another sign that DreamWorks has lost their magic touch.
Here’s hoping they find it fast.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.