'Abominable' Review: Wildly Imaginative Visuals Balance Out A Generic Adventure Story

For years, DreamWorks was comfortably settled into its role as the bargain bin Pixar, coasting its way through with thinly veiled Pixar knock-offs and Shrek sequels. But the How to Train Your Dragon franchise signaled a change for the studio. Here was an animation studio that was finally going to take itself seriously, that was going to prioritize storytelling and characters and deliver lush, jaw-dropping visuals. Sure, there would be your occasional Boss Baby, and let's not discount the underrated joys of the Kung Fu Panda movies. But with the studio's newest film, Abominable, it seemed like DreamWorks was ready to go further down the path that How to Train Your Dragon established. However, it seems like it may still take them a while to get there.

A sweet and heartfelt movie about a Shanghai teenager who stumbles upon an escaped yeti on her apartment rooftop, Abominable is a classic girl-and-her-monster story that recalls the dreamlike whimsy of Studio Ghibli films and features some of the most astonishing animated flying sequences since How to Train Your Dragon. But an overly simple and familiar plot and some painfully clunky writing prevent Abominable from reaching the heights of DreamWorks' greatest works.

Written and directed by Jill Culton (Open Season) and co-directed by Todd WildermanAbominable tells the story of Shanghai teenage girl Yi (Chloe Bennet), who, in the aftermath of her father's death, is juggling multiple jobs in order to achieve her dream of traveling across China. A once-talented violinist, Yi's family and friends begin to worry as she shuts herself off from their concerned inquiries and quits playing the violin that she used to love so dearly. But all those issues are put on the back burner when Yi stumbles upon a yeti cowering on her apartment rooftop. Quickly discovering that the yeti has escaped from a research facility that had captured it for an obsessed collector (Eddie Izzard) and his scheming zoologist employee (Sarah Paulson), Yi embarks on a journey to return the yeti to its home on Mount Everest, thousands of miles away. Dragged along for the ride are her two childhood friends Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and Peng (Albert Tsai).

As the three kids (rather easily) make their way across the Asian continent, the vibrant and lively metropolis setting gives way to fields of lush greenery and rolling hills. Undeniably, it's in these landscapes and the enchanting sequences that they beget that elevate Abominable from its clichéd trappings. While playing her violin to calm the yeti down, Yi discovers that the creature has the magical power to control nature, leading to several breathtaking, wildly imaginative sequences that feel positively Ghibli-esque. In one sequence, in which the gang flees pursuers outside of a small rural village, the yeti transforms a field of yellow flowers into a floral tidal wave that breaks at the crest and showers the screen, and the kids, in vibrant yellow colors. The sequences only get more impressive from there, though they begin to have less bearing on the plot to the extent that it felt like the animators were simply flexing their creative skills — from a dandelion flower that gets transformed into a giant floating stalk, to the children dancing with floating balls of light beneath a pink willow tree.

But the film's biggest strength, apart from its stunning visuals, lies in its friend-shaped yeti, which Yi fondly nicknames Everest. Furry, rotund, and armed with a pair of quivering anime eyes that could melt the hardest of hearts, Everest is the end result of years of DreamWorks perfecting its "adorable magical creature modeled on a dog" formula. And goddammit, it works. Part Totoro, part Labrador Retriever, Everest is easily excitable and loyal to a fault, bonding easily with the childish Peng and playfully teasing the uptight Jin. Its doglike qualities lead to some of the most organically funny moments of the film, which is what makes Abominable's ploys at kid-friendly slapstick humor all the more cringeworthy.

The simplistic dialogue is forgivable on account of the awe-inspiring visuals, but when Abominable bookends its most fantastical sequences with a lame joke, it feels tired. Everest uses its powers to create giant blueberries which accidentally grow so overwhelmingly large that they turn into an avalanche, leading to the kids getting covered in blue goo, and Jin getting two big blueberries stuck in the back of his pants. Like a butt! Get it? Jabs at selfies and social media also feel out-of-place in a film that with such out-of-this-world visuals. They're silly remnants of the older days of DreamWorks and show that the studio still has a long way to go.

However, Abominable does make important strides in diversity for the studio — the film is inexorably tied to Chinese culture, lavishing attention on the country's gorgeous landscapes (so much so that the movie, co-produced by the China-based Pearl Studio, feels like an elaborate tourist advertisement at several points) and making Yi into a believable Shanghai teenager. She has a doting grandmother (Tsai Chin) who plies her with dumplings while interrogating her, she feels the pull between family and a brand new world, and she turns to Chinese fables to motivate her at her lowest points. The film sometimes takes a shortcut with Yi's arc in favor of its slapstick moments or to throw in another visually dazzling sequence, but her emotional journey remains as much a through-line for the film as the gang's physical journey to Everest.

It's in its beautiful, stirring sequences and its emotional depths that Abominable almost realizes the potential that DreamWorks had with its How to Train Your Dragon series. While the animation is nowhere near as detailed as those films — the designs of Shanghai look a little too much like a video game — Abominable is awe-inspiring simply by the sheer force of its imagination.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10