What if, instead of humans not believing in Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman, it was the other way around? That’s the surface premise of Warner Brothers Animation’s Smallfoot, opening September 28, and if the humor inherent in that flip-the-script premise, plus amazing computer animation, a star-studded voice cast, and a bunch of songs by Broadway veterans, weren’t enough to make this the rare family film that family members of all ages can actually enjoy together, it gets a little deep, too.
Young yeti Migo (Channing Tatum) turns his mountaintop world upside down when he sees a legendary “smallfoot” and challenges the orthodoxy of not asking questions and following the laws literally worn and enforced by the village Stonekeeper (Common). He discovers that the local anti-establishment crackpots are secretly led by Meechee (Zendaya), the Stonekeeper’s daughter, that they have Smallfoot evidence, and they want his help in challenging the “Smallfoot isn’t real” dictum. Meanwhile, a washed-up wanna-be Steve Irwin named Percy (James Corden) wants to fake a yeti sighting in order to boost his ratings and instead finds himself abducted by Migo as proof of the existence of Smallfoots (Smallfeet?). The usual wacky-cross-cultural-misunderstandings ensue, as neither speaks the other’s language and both have stereotyped views of the assumed-to-be-mythical other, but it all culminates in some hard reckoning with the ideas of truth and responsibility (that I won’t go into here because SPOILERS) that ultimately leads to a happy ending for all involved (it is a family movie, after all).
There is a lot to recommend the film to family members of all ages. The voice cast is packed with big names, from topliners Tatum (who sings in this!) and Corden (ditto) to a supporting cast that includes Danny Devito as Migo’s dad, LeBron James (yes, that LeBron James) as the very funny yeti version of Conspiracy Brother (who just happens to be right), Gwangi, Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez as fellow Smallfoot Evidentiary Society member Kolka, Black-ish and Grown-ish’s Yara Shahidi as Percy’s producer Brenda, the aforementioned Zendaya as the yeti almost-princess-cum-scientist/Smallfoot truther Meechee, and the inimitable vocal stylings of rapper/actor Common as her dad-slash-village elder, the Stonekeeper. Besides acting with more than a bit of humor, those same voice actors bring to life a number of musical numbers by Karey Kirkpatrick (also the film’s writer and director) and his brother Wayne, who together wrote Broadway’s Something Rotten! As to be expected, my 13- and 9-year-old daughters have not stopped singing Zendaya’s “Wonderful Life,” an acoustic guitar-backed ballad dedicated to asking questions and seeking the truth in the world around us. However, I didn’t quite expect my 9-year-old to repeatedly rap, a la James Corden, the entirety of “Percy’s Pressure,” his character’s karaoke improv version of Queen’s “Under Pressure” in which he begs Brenda to help him reclaim his fame by staging a hoax. For me, the other standout on the soundtrack is “Let It Lie,” in which Common’s Storekeeper lays on Migo the hidden truths he didn’t know he didn’t really want to know (again, spoilers!). This number only served to underscore the genius of this casting choice.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t quickly mention the quality of the animation. Yes, this is a fantasy with cartoon-y characters, but the detail work is amazing. The world building and sets in both the yeti village and the Nepalese backpackers’ basecamp town are wonderfully detailed and real-looking. But, as is often the case with the increasing photorealism of computer animation, the real litmus test here is hair. Or more to the point, fur. And for cartoony, fantasy creatures with big cute eyes and no noses, the yetis’ fur — the way it looks, the way it moves — looks way real-er than it had to.
But let’s move beyond the voices, the songs, and the animation now, to the deeper meanings one can find if one looks. And really, you don’t have to look that hard. I mean, yes, it’s a cartoon, and yes, it’s for kids, but my first reactions to Smallfoot were, “Dang, that’s deep.” Actually, my first note after watching was, “First impression: it’s Pocahontas meets The Village.” And I don’t mean either comparison in a derogatory way, at all. As I said above, I don’t want to go too much into detail about some reveals so as not to spoil it for the kids, but this movie hits several key notes on its way to an underlying message about seeking the truth and questioning authority and assumptions. First, the yeti village’s reliance on and adherence to the community’s rules and laws, literally written in stone and borne and enforced by successive Stonekeepers, so much so that they are told to stuff questions deep down and ignore them for the good and safety of the community, hints at a layer of religious fundamentalism versus science debate here. Meechee’s exhortation to Migo to “be the seeker of truth” “in a world mysterious there for you to find” in the song “Wonderful Life” is literally the film’s “Colors of the Wind” moment. When Migo finally finds out the truth that the Stonekeeper and his forebears have kept hidden for the good of the community, you can understand why those decisions were made, and a layer of anti-imperialist/anti-colonial/anti-racist message laid down. When the Stonekeeper finally lets Migo tell the community the truth and lets the village decide what to do, a layer of debate between informed democracy versus top-down control of information even with the best of intentions is laid down. When, finally, the yetis and their human allies make the first move toward rapprochement with the fearful, aggressive (dare I say species-ist?) humans, the final, albeit too facile layer of diplomacy and friendship through multiculturalism and truth (though with too little reconciliation, it seems) is laid down. The ultimate, multilayered message of this family film seems to be, in the end, that the truth can be complicated (my wife’s takeaway from the movie), but that it’s worth it to work toward it together.
The diverse casting of Smallfoot only serves to underscore the multiple layers of messages of the film, especially of several artists-who-are-also-activists-of-color in key supporting roles. There’s Zendaya, of course, who has been outspoken about diversity in Hollywood. Yara Shahidi is not only an actor and brand-new college student but a filmmaker contemplating truths about race and gender and an activist organizing her young peers to vote for the first time. And my 9-year-old daughter, Emi Hope, got the opportunity to talk to both Gina Rodriguez and Common about the movie and the intersection of art and activism.
Rodriguez, the star of the CW’s hit Jane the Virgin, has used her rising stardom to advocate for the diversification of media storytelling. Common, the rapper and actor, has made a career of combining music and message at the same time as being the driving force behind his Chicago-based community mentoring organization the Common Ground Foundation. Emi asked them both what message they hoped young people, like her, would leave the movie Smallfoot with.
For Rodriguez, she “would be so happy if a young kid walked out of the movie and felt like they were confident enough to find their voice, be true to themselves, follow their instincts, stand by their truth, and ultimately be unafraid of that which they do not know, and more instead intrigued to find out more about what they don’t know.” For Common, he wants kids to “think they can believe in their truth. If they have a truth in them that they believe in, then they can be okay to ask it and just to speak about it and to say it and to not be afraid of things that are different than them.”
Pointing to the intersection of art and activism in their professional lives, Emi asked them for advice about how to do the same thing in her own young life, combining her love of creating with her desire to have a voice and make a difference. Rodriguez said, “I think you’re making a difference right now already by being here, by wanting to do what you love from the start… I think that the greatest thing you can do as a nine-year-old to make a difference is to follow your dreams because then you will allow other people to follow theirs as well.”
Common’s advice: “You being an artist, you have to do it ‘cause you really love the art, whatever the art is. If you want to sing, if you want to dance, if you want to do photography, if you want to write, if you want to act, you do it because you really love it. The activist part comes in just the way you live your life, in the things that you value and valuing other people, caring about other people, and that will come through sometimes in the work you do, but then you do the activist things outside of the work too, meaning activists live and try to do good for other people as well as create art that that is helping people.”
While on one level, Smallfoot is just a fun cartoon, with its layers of messaging about seeking the truth and coming together, and its diverse, dynamic cast, this is one family movie that can enjoyment and meaning to multiple audiences on multiple levels.