In the bloodthirsty world of corporate animation, a very strange symbiotic relationship has sprung up between Sony Pictures Imageworks and Warner Animation Group. As part of its ongoing attempt to get back to its noble history of comic cartooning, Warner has twice now contracted with SPI to produce a feature to be released under the WAG banner, instead of SPI's usual home under the Sony Pictures Animation brand. These two films have managed to be, out of all the films released by either company (or any other company currently making animated features in America, really), the that feel the most "authentically" like the glory days of Warner Bros. animation, giving us a weird insight into what Sony's animation might be if it wasn't beholden to the ugly urges of Sony's corporate overlords, and what Warner might be able to create more reliably if it hadn't gotten into a black hole of unending Lego tie-in movies.

The first of these was 2016's Storks, a charming but very inconsistent bit of slapstick that was intermittently brilliant and generally only vaguely mirthful. The new second film is Smallfoot, which is charming and also much more consistent. Unfortunately, this consistency is mostly because Smallfoot doesn't hit the same heights as Storks. It's a perfectly fine thing: cute, imaginative in its design, technically effective, visually appealing. It's just not very fun or funny, and those are somewhat critical things for a children's adventure comedy.

Points for at least one major point of ingenuity in the screenplay, adapted by a cluster of writers from Sergio Pablos's book Yeti Tracks: the film rather blithely reverses the typical "social misfit stuck in a world that just doesn't understand how special they are, man" opening gambit of way too many contemporary kids' films. As a matter of fact, Migo (Channing Tatum), absolutely loves the isolated mountaintop village of yetis where he lives, starting the film off with a musical number about how he'd never, ever upset the hidebound conservatism of his culture (actually, he starts the film with a peppy bit of diegetically inexplicable expository narration that could be quietly removed with almost no ill-effects). It would be overreaching to say that it's a deliberate parody of the "why am I so much better than my neighbors?" opening numbers of e.g. Beauty and the Beast, but it's kind of in that ballpark.

This yeti village, which as far as anybody knows is the only place in the entire universe (the yetis live above a permanent cloudbank that hides the lower slopes of the mountain), is a religious autocracy, run by the beneficent Stonekeeper (Common), whose robe is made up of all the laws governing society, and nobody has any reason to doubt the truth of any of them. Until, of course, Migo fucks something up: things go awry on his first day of training as the future ringer of the gong that rouses the giant luminescent snail who lives in the sun, and he ends up outside of the village just in time to see a plane crash, with the human pilot ejecting right in to the yeti's path. Astonished to learn that the mythological "smallfoot" exists, Migo makes the mistake of rushing right back to tell everybody, and is banished as a heretic. This comes as a tremendous shock to the wholly devout traditionalist, who decides to find another smallfoot and thereby prove that he's right, not really thinking that this means he'll be calling the foundation of the whole yeti society into question if he does so. Which makes him the perfect pawn for machinations of the Smallfoot Evidentiary Society, an apostate radical group that includes among its members the Stonekeeper's own daughter, Meechee (Zendaya).

That's, like... a lot for a kids' movie. So it's no surprise at all that Smallfoot ends up punting on pretty much all of this, favoring instead the cheerful slapstick of watching Migo and various either yetis falling off cliffs and smacking into things; in very little time at all, it adds in Percy Patterson (James Corden), a TV nature show host who's just about ready to fake a yeti sighting to boost his program's failing ratings, but will happily make do with a real yeti when one presents himself. The best I can say about the film, and it really is a very good thing to be fair, is that it's got a lot of gags that are based on the rhythms peculiar to the Looney Tunes shorts directed by Bob Clampett and the early Chuck Jones, in which physics aren't so much "suspended" as gently bent, with slapstick happening in the form of perfectly-timed abrupt movements, characters hovering a minute in midair before falling, the like. Almost a quarter of a century into the CG animation revolution, doing old-school cartooning with new technology is still rarer than one might think, and Kirkpatrick and Jason Reisig, Smallfoot's directors, obviously know what they're doing on that front.

There's a lot more to the 96-minute film than the kind of gag best appreciated in seven-minute chunks, though, and it's not particularly... anything. It's a sweet film, and the cast members are generally good at capturing something upbeat and earnest in their characters, despite several of them not even being actors, let alone voice actors (basketball icon LeBron James and YouTube person Jimmy Tatro are also in the cast), which puts a lot of the film over the hump. It's also generally a lot of fun just to look at it: the yeti village is a fanciful environment that feels like a giant outdoor factory built by cavemen, and the character design is amusing enough, if never groundbreaking. The yetis and humans alike have big expressive faces with rubbery mouths and gangly limbs, and it's only a little irritating that Percy is so eerily reminiscent of the human character Johnny from the Hotel Transylvania pictures, also animated by Sony Pictures Imageworks. Or that the character's eyes look like matte plastic shells taped over their actual eyes, the ones where personality and character might be expressed.

Anyway, it's quite harmless which isn't a given for modern children's cinema. It's a bit shitty as a musical - three of the songs have mangled, over-literal lyrics and serve very little point that wasn't already made in dialogue, and the fourth is a grueling nightmare of that plus Corden rapping over the beat from "Under Pressure" - and a bit sleepy as a comedy, and a whole damn lot predictable as a story, but it's also not even a little bit interested in pretending to be any bigger or more impressive than a modest little time waster. And for that I admire it; a lot of feature animation has some weird aspiration to being big and splashy, and a little quiet modesty, free from giant setpieces or huge self-aware comic bits or commercial cross-promotion, is a very nice change of pace.