By Preston Wilder
Someone’s been reading Stephen Hawking, or at least the opening page of A Brief History of Time – the one with the anecdote about the old lady who believed the world was carried on the back of a giant tortoise, and it was “turtles all the way down”. A riff on that line (only with ‘mammoths’ instead of ‘turtles’) appears in Smallfoot, a kids’ cartoon with more grown-up talking points than any cartoon since Zootropolis. The people who make these things should really be hounded out of Hollywood, since they’re making life very difficult for everyone else: little kids who grow up finding Big Ideas in their cartoons are unlikely to become good consumers for mindless sequels and superhero movies.
It’s even worse since the Big Idea in this case urges kids to be critical thinkers and question everything – which is kind of what happens to Migo (voice of Channing Tatum), a yeti (or Bigfoot, or Abominable Snowman) living in a village of yetis way up in the clouds, actually above the clouds. Below the clouds lies nothingness, says the village elder, the Stonekeeper, transmitting the wisdom contained in the ancient Stones (read: Commandments). The Stones say not to venture below the clouds. The Stones say that Migo’s dad Dorgle (the unmistakable voice of Danny DeVito) must ring the gong each morning to make the sun rise. The Stones say there’s no such thing as a human being, or ‘smallfoot’ – but then Migo happens to see one, the pilot of a plane that crash-lands, only to be disbelieved and banished when he tries to tell the others.
The concept is simple, and amusing: yetis fear humans just like humans fear yetis. On this concept hangs another, more didactic concept: the yetis believe that “ignorance is bliss”, and live by maxims like “Blend in” and “Do as you’re told”. Only a gang of rebellious youngsters calling themselves the SES – ‘Smallfoot Evidentiary Society’ – dare to question the old order, joining Migo as he tries to track down the smallfoot. Things, I’m afraid, get political. The old order is patriarchal, while the SES is made up of women (well, girls) and what Americans would call ‘people of colour’; “It’s not just about tearing down old ideas, it’s about finding new ones,” they insist, with Jacobin fervour. Later, the smallfoot (an animal-show presenter named Percy, voiced by James Corden) is brought to the village – but the Stonekeeper takes Migo aside (“I smell cover-up!” warns a SES member) and inducts him into the deep state, after which Migo comes out claiming that the smallfoot isn’t a smallfoot at all, just a rare type of yak. Fake news!
Blockbuster cartoons have perfected the art of reaching out to different demographics – but it used to be that kids got slapstick silliness while adults got mildly risqué jokes and references to 80s movies, whereas now it seems they get liberal bromides and puns on the word ‘woke’. Fortunately, the kids still get slapstick silliness – and the best part of Smallfoot is its farcical middle section, with Migo suffering all kinds of painful cartoon punishment (the best of it involves a rope bridge and a pair of detachable cliff faces), then meeting Percy and carrying him back up the mountain.
The inter-species bonding is fun, Migo’s friendly overtures coming out as terrifying roars while Percy’s elaborate theories emerge as little animal squeals. Percy gets so cold he becomes frozen solid, like an ice lolly, then Migo tries to warm him up by roasting him on a spit over an open fire. Also in the mix is a fierce bear met in a cave, whose angry bellowing is actually a crotchety rant – Migo understands her, Bear and Yeti being presumably similar, like Swedish and Danish – about all the noise they’re making, and can’t they see she’s hibernating. Then they get to the village, Percy fielding questions about his belongings (“That’s a snood. That’s a fibre supplement, I’d rather not talk about it…”). It’s a welcome reminder that cartoons work best when being – well, cartoonish.
Not that we mind the political overtones. Smallfoot is an amiable, amusing cartoon with surprising heft and intelligence, noting, for instance, that religion – which is what the Stones signify – serves multiple purposes, giving people security and a sense of identity. “If I don’t ring the gong, I’m not the Gong Ringer,” muses Dorgle unhappily when his role is revealed as a sham; “And if I’m not the Gong Ringer, what am I?”. This is heavy stuff to lay on the average eight-year-old, fortunately it’s also diluted with slapstick, a joke about toilet paper, sub-Disney songs (not very good ones, unfortunately), and large furry creatures crashing into mountains. Besides, the problem is temporary: eight-year-olds will soon be too old for cartoons, and can graduate to mindless sequels and superhero movies.
DIRECTED BY Karey Kirkpatrick
WITH THE VOICES OF Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya
US 2018 96 mins