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Smallfoot **1/2

by Ruben Rosario

Inspired sight gags and competent voice work keep this pleasant animated musical from leaning too much on its to-thine-own-self-be-true message. It hews to overly familiar beats and is hampered by an unremarkable start, but this sunny portrait of interspecies relations strikes a family-friendly balance between funny and serious. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

That cold breeze you feel as you're watching the pat mythology that opens the easily digestible animated yarn “Smallfoot” is a pervasive sense of déjà vu. Yes, you've been to this frigid, remote village before, only a few years ago it was populated by vikings in fear of large scaly monsters. The latest matinee fare from Warner Animation Group turns that premise on its head, by filling a Himalayan village cut off from the rest of the world with Yetis (aka Bigfoot, er, Bigfeet?). And the titular creature they mention in hushed whispers is the most dangerous of all: human beings.

Sounds like a decent enough concept, right? But “Smallfoot,” directed by veteran screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick (“James and the Giant Peach,” “Chicken Run”), stumbles out of the gate with a first act that is so perfunctory it may as well have been put together by an android. It appropriates the more annoying aspects of the computer animated adaptations of Dr. Seuss' books, down to some of the Yetis' oval heads and, most distracting of all, eyes placed too close together.

A bouncy but forgettable musical number that introduces the Yetis' village, takes its cue from Disney Animation circa 1991, with a sound that's closer to Disney Channel pop. But hold on a minute, Kirkpatrick cautions, as he encourages viewers young and old to pay attention. This photogenic stability, as it happens, is built on a foundation of lies. Lies literally set in stone by the Stonekeeper (voiced by rapper Common), the Yetis' wise leader. The Smallfoot is a fantasy, he insists, a campfire tale meant to instill fear. They do not exist.

But the Stonekeeper isn't this creature feature's main protagonist. That would be Migo (a game Channing Tatum), a monster next door who's all too happy to believe his fearless leader's gaslighting and take his place in this patriarchal society as the one who rings the gong that causes the sun to rise. (Danny DeVito genially picks up a paycheck as the voice of his dad, Dorgle.) He buys into the illusion, that is, until he witnesses a pilot eject from his plane and parachute into the snow right in front of him. The physical humor this encounter between species elicits puts “Smallfoot” on sturdier territory. In other words, the movie's considerably stronger when it channels the inspired lunacy of a Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote cartoon than when it tries to ape the Disney feature mold.

Migo reluctantly confronts the Stonekeeper in front of the entire village, but he's no match for the older Yeti's iron grip on the populace. Once Migo is banished until he's ready to retract his ridiculous claim, “Smallfoot,” at long last, finds its footing. Sure, an encounter with Meechee (Zendaya), the Stonekeeper's secretly free-thinking daughter, gives way to a musical number that suffers from “Colors of the Wind” envy, but Migo gets to finally cross paths with Percy, an animal video fixture on YouTube whose show is beset with dwindling ratings.

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The mismatched pair is at the core of Kirkpatrick's exploration of fear of the other, a grown-up topic that the filmmaker makes accessible to viewers of all ages without coming across as preachy, even as “Smallfoot” steadfastly hits all the expected story beats. What I think ultimately makes the film agreeably watchable is the generosity it displays toward all of its characters. Kirkpatrick wisely resists the temptation, for instance, of turning the Stonekeeper into a villain. As formulaic as the movie is, it refuses to flatten its central conflict into a battle of good versus evil.

And then it becomes more apparent that “Smallfoot's” civics lesson of being true to oneself and be opento different cultures can be seen as an allegory for colonialism. There's no need for either species to live in fear, because even those we've been conditioned to perceive as the enemy could be the source of lasting harmony. This kind of paradigm shift was handled with more finesse and resonance in the “How to Train Your Dragon” movies, but “Smallfoot” is ultimately seeking to please a younger demographic than that franchise. (Sorry, furries and foot fetishists. It pains me to report there's really not much for you here.) And even though not all of it works, and even though it takes too long to hit its stride, its call for bridge-building is a message one is never too old to take to heart.

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