Movie review: 'Smallfoot'

It's not everyday that a man befriends a Yeti in the Himalayan mountains.
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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.Pictures & Warner Animation Group.
An unlikely friendship develops between a desperate-for-fame photojournalist (voiced by James Corden) and Yeti pals Migo (Channing Tatum) and Meechee (Zendaya) in "Smallfoot."

“Smallfoot” is an animated comedy about a herd of “Yeti” (or Abominable Snowmen) who live in an isolated village on the Himalayan Mountains. The Yeti look like apes with white hair, walk upright, and talk like humans.  However, the Yeti only know their own tribe, and never come into contact with humans. That is, until a plane crashes in the mountains and a Yeti witnesses a human escaping from the wreckage. “Smallfoot” is an interesting story, but it’s weighed down by a subversive message that may raise red flags with parents.

The story begins with a cheerful song that explains the Yeti belief system. Life means being on the mountain top with the Yeti tribe, with nothing beyond the clouds. The Yeti know this is true because it’s written in stone, and kept by the ”Stonekeeper” (voiced by Common.) Evidently, the Stonekeeper is the leader of the Yeti’s and tells everyone what to do and what to believe. The Stonekeeper has long white hair and a beard.  He is clothed in a robe, and encourages the tribe to submit to the stones (or laws passed down through generations.) The Yeti are told to suppress any questions or doubts, and if something doesn’t make sense, just refer to the law written on the stones.  Under no circumstances should anyone should question the validity of the stones. 

From a parent’s perspective, the Stonekeeper concept raises a lot of red flags. He tells the tribe that humans don’t exist, and that a Yeti must bang a giant gong at sunrise or the sun won’t come up.  A young Yeti named Migo (Channing Tatum) is being trained to become the next gong ringer.

One day, Migo sees a plane flying through the sky. The plane spins out of control and catches fire, but the pilot emerges from the plane, narrowly escaping death, and jumps off the mountain with a parachute.

Having witnessed the plane wreck and the “smallfoot” man who parachutes away, Migo runs back to the village to tell the others.  The Yeti always believed that humans didn’t exist, but Migo saw him with his own eyes. The Stonekeeper overhears Migo, and accuses him of lying. The Stonekeeper orders Migo to be banished from the village until he recants his story about the smallfoot man. 

Outside the village, Migo is approached by four other Yeti's who have a club called SES (or Smallfoot Evidentiary Society.) They believe Migo and want to find out what really happened. Evidently, the SES is led by the Stonekeeper’s daughter, a female Yeti named Meechee (voiced by Zendaya.) Secretly, Migo always had a crush on Meechee, and now she is coming to his rescue. Together, they come up with a plan to go down the mountain beneath the clouds and find proof that smallfoots exist.

Meanwhile, the human society at the bottom of the mountain is thriving. A British TV photojournalist named Percy Patterson (voiced by James Corden) wants to do a feature story that will boost ratings and turn him into an overnight celebrity. He comes up with a scheme to fake a Yeti sighting on camera, and upload it online so that it can become viral.  Percy’s producer, Brenda, insists this is unethical and will compromise their integrity. 

 In response, Percy sings and dances to Queen’s “Under Pressure”—although he’s re-written the lyrics to reflect the pressure he’s under to capture a story that will get everyone’s attention.

Percy is contacted by a pilot (Jack Quaid) who narrowly escaped from the plane wreck atop the Himalayan mountians. Evidently, this pilot saw Migo the Yeti, and encourages Percy to investigate.

Somehow, Percy ends up meeting Migo the Yeti on the mountain. They don’t speak the same language. Percy sounds like a nervous mouse to the Yeti, and Migo sounds like a ferocious wild beast to humans. There is some miscommunication as they each assume that the other is trying to kill them. Eventually, Percy and Migo form a bond. Communicating through hand signals, Percy agrees to go with Migo to the Yeti village. Percy films everything on his cellphone with the hopes that it will make him famous.  Percy wants to show the world that the Yeti is real, and Migo wants everyone to know that smallfoot humans are real. Of course, both of their plans backfire, with comic complications.

Piggybacking on Plato’s allegory of the Cave

Perhaps "Smallfoot" retells Plato's classic allegory of the Cave. Very briefly, Plato's allegory is about men are being held prisoner inside a cave. One man escapes and leaves the cave. He is shocked at the world outside the cave and doesn't believe it's real. He eventually realizes that his former view of reality was wrong. The man returns to the cave, to tell the other prisoners of his findings. They do not believe him and don’t want to be set free.

With Plato’s allegory, the cave represents people who believe that knowledge comes from what we see and hear in the world, or empirical evidence. The cave shows that believers of empirical knowledge are trapped in a “cave” of misunderstanding. The man who escapes the cave represents the Philosopher, who seeks knowledge outside of the cave and outside of the senses. The other prisoner’s reaction to the escapee returning represents that people are scared of knowing philosophical truth.

Does all of this sound a bit heavy-handed for a children's cartoon? Yes, I thought so. "Smallfoot" definitely piggybacks off Plato's allegory of the cave and furthers the Philosopher concept with the Stonekeeper.

The Stonekeeper 

The Stonekeeper could be interpreted with a religious lens. He is reminiscent of Moses from the Old Testament, who upholds the Ten Commandments, which are written on stone. But the Stonekeeper is different than Moses in that he encourages the Yeti to believe things that aren’t true– such as the part about humans not existing. Sadly, the Stonekeeper is a liar and deceiver, although he rationalizes that it's for the greater good of the tribe.

The Stonekeeper could also be interpretted from political point of view, perhaps suggesting that a totalitarian government decides what’s right or wrong, and dictates how we live our lives. 

Towards the end of the movie, the Stonekeeper admits that he lied to the Yeti tribe, but they were white lies, or “good lies.”  Ultimately, the Yeti decide that it’s better to live with the truth than it is to live with a lie.

Final take

“Smallfoot” is a well-crafted movie, with a diverse cast of voices, and music is used to tell the story in a powerful way. The animation is excellent, but some of movie’s heart gets lost in its subversive messaging.

The Yeti come to realize that everything they've been taught to believe is wrong. There is an implicit warning to be beware of authority figures, because they could be secretly lying and deceiving us, under the guise of the "greater good" of society. This concept is heavy-handed, and just too much for a children’s movie. I saw the film with a 6-year-old girl, her mother and grandmother. The little girl liked the movie, and didn’t really put the pieces together about the Stonekeeper and how he manipulated the Yeti tribe.  What she liked best about the film was the bright colored animation, upbeat music and how the characters worked together to solve their dilemma. I was glad that the subversive message went in one ear and out the other, but it rubbed me the wrong way.