To borrow a baseball metaphor, most modern animated movies aim to send the ball to one of two spots in the stadium. Pixar goes Babe Ruth and points its bat straight to the rafters, where the glorious, intractable legacy of Bambi and Dumbo reside. After the best, most of the rest seem content to safely drive the pitch to shallow center. The resulting output is attractive and expensive, yet thoroughly hollow and disposable. Smallfoot belongs firmly in the base hit crowd: It feels built for amusing distraction and not a whole lot more.
The plot is cutesy and derivative: A Whoville-type commune of affable Yetis live in blissful ignorance atop a shrouded, Himalayan peak. They sing, dance, and toil in glorious harmony until Migo (Channing Tatum), the group’s amiable miscreant, stumbles upon a “smallfoot”—a terrified, chattering human previously thought to exist only in mythology. His discovery knocks the rollicking village off its spiritual axis and earns him banishment into the mountain’s abyss. Of course, Migo stumbles onto an underground resistance of Yetis who believe humans are real and urge him venture out to make first contact.
What follows is adequately charming and mildly successful. If the animation isn’t the most wondrous, eye-popping landscape of tundra topography you’ve ever laid eyes on, it’s still totes decent. The voice talent is a roster of names you’ll recognize and a few you won’t. Danny DeVito is pretty obvious, but keep an ear out for LeBron James as one of the counterculture Yetis. The musical numbers are pretty….well, meh. They’re bright and big, but try remembering any of ‘em an hour after the movie’s out. I dare you.
I remember hearing a story that the writers of Leave It to Beaver, the banal 50s sitcom, were instructed to avoid going for big laughs. Mild chuckles were okay, but anything too bold or broad would be excised. Leave the crazy, ambitious stuff to I Love Lucy, they said. Smallfoot shoots for that same safe ground. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either. Super-young audiences will buy right in, but anyone who’s old enough to expect a little more may find themselves disappointed.