Rating: (3 stars)
As cliched as it sounds, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. But if a wheel can’t be improved on, it can be made lovelier. That’s what “Abominable” does. The animated film takes a standard story and adds so much visual beauty that it exceeds expectations.
First, that standard story: Yi (voice of Chloe Bennet) is a Shanghai teenager, still grieving the recent death of her father; she suppresses her sadness by keeping busy with various jobs and distancing herself from her mother and grandmother (Michelle Wong and Tsai Chin ). After one particular frenetic day, she escapes to her rooftop sanctuary, where she finds a yeti who’s escaped from a zoologist (Sarah Paulson) and a rare animal collector (Eddie Izzard). Yi and the yeti, whom she names Everest, head off to the Himalayas to return the creature to his home, accompanied by two friends, who are mostly there to provide exposition.
As you’d expect from DreamWorks, the animation — especially the eyes, which are marvelously expressive — is something to behold. This comes in handy for Everest, who is nonverbal. The character himself is a wonder: a silky-haired, graceful oaf who can go from cuddly to ferocious in a moment.
But the best-looking parts of the film are the backgrounds, which are rendered so lovingly and lushly that they’re virtually a character in the film. The Shanghai scenery, for instance, underscores how much Everest doesn’t belong; he’s a big ball of fluff in a city of steel and neon. As Yi and company travel through Chinese landscapes, Everest shifts from alien to native the closer they get to the snow-covered mountains. As in “Moana,” “Abominable’s” cultural setting is integral to the story line. Given that the movie is a partnership between DreamWorks and Pearl Studio (formerly Oriental DreamWorks), the emphasis placed on China’s role in the story unsurprising.
But unsurprising doesn’t mean unimportant.
The other virtual character is the score, which heightens the emotions without being manipulative or cheap. Yi is an accomplished violinist, and when she plays, it’s with genuine feeling — particularly when she’s accompanied by Everest, who rumbles tunefully (courtesy of Joseph Izzo, whose vocalizations evoke a combination of Tibetan throat singing and a basso profundo’s purr). The song “Fix You” by Coldplay — a reliable tear-jerker — shows up in one especially moving scene.
There is so much that’s so good about “Abominable” that it’s easy to forgive its formulaic narrative and — with the exception of Yi — its lightly written characters. Emotional nuance, outstanding voice performances (particularly from Bennet) and artful animation all combine to lift the film.
No, “Abominable” doesn’t reinvent the wheel — but it does deliver a lovely ride.
PG. At area theaters. Contains action and mild rude humor. 97 minutes.