If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as the saying goes. That seems to be the approach taken by the screenwriters of the new animated feature “Smallfoot.” The story is actually “Bigfoot,” but it hinges on a clever reversal of perspective, centering on a tribe of Yetis in the Himalayas who fear the dreaded unknown creature known to them as Smallfoot.
The mysterious beings clad their feet in leather cases with ridged soles. They carry rolls of soft white paper in zippered satchels. That’s right: Smallfoot is human, and the notion of taking a storied monster like Bigfoot and making him the hero, and humans the monster, is the fun of the movie, based on the book “Yeti Tracks” by Sergio Pablos. The film is co-written and co-directed by Karey Kirkpatrick (“Over the Hedge”), while Jason Reisig co-directs, with Clare Sera, John Requa and Glenn Ficarra as co-writers.
The story itself is one we’ve seen before, just with a twist or two. Our hero, Migo (Channing Tatum), is a happy-go-lucky Yeti who loves his small snowy village so much he sings a song about the way it works in perfect harmony. Yes, you may be getting flashbacks to “Where You Are” from “Moana,” or “Belle” from “Beauty and the Beast,” but Migo is far more loyally unquestioning and optimistic than his Disney counterparts. But as soon as you hear the song, we know where we’re going with “Smallfoot” — a young but brave naïf who loves their home will, by some turn of events, be thrust outside of their comfort zone, discover something new, go on an adventure and question everything they’ve ever known. And that’s exactly what happens.
Migo has a chance encounter with a smallfoot pilot who crash-lands on the mountain. He tries to tell his village, though he’s rebuffed and outcast by the Stonekeeper (Common), who denies his assertion. So Migo hooks up with the secret Smallfoot Evidentiary Society, and they go hunting for evidence of smallfoots. In a local village, Migo scoops up Percy (James Corden), an animal/adventure TV host who sees his own opportunity in the encounter.
Although “Smallfoot” is formulaic and predictable, what sets it apart is its willingness to dive into the themes of questioning blind faith within small communities. The Stonekeeper has great reason to keep the village isolated and psychologically controlled with myth and legend — it keeps them safe, secure and to the status quo. But there’s no growth, no innovation, and Migo’s father, Dorgle (Danny DeVito), keeps smashing his head into a gong every morning because the Stonekeeper told him it makes the sun rise. It’s actually a brilliant way to teach younger audiences about fake news and gaslighting at an early age.
The animated designs are gorgeous. The Yeti characters are diverse in shape, pastel color and hair designs, and their goofy yet friendly forms are set against picturesque snowy mountain landscapes and tangerine skies. It’s simple, but beautiful and effective, while the village is lovingly, busily rendered with detail.
The songs, by Zendaya, who voices Meechee, and pop stars like One Direction member Niall Horan, are a bit forgettable, but it’s rare to see a proper animated musical feature these days, and “Smallfoot” leans into that. Tatum also turns in a charming vocal performance as the bright-eyed Migo who learns what it means to think for himself.
While “Smallfoot” follows a familiar path, it’s what it does with the journey that makes it worth watching.