Nothing about Abominable is even mildly surprising (unless it's that an English-language movie made by American creators and mostly at an American animation studio should be set in China and have a female protagonist, and neither of these facts are even briefly commented upon), which is kind of a great thing. It doesn't feel like it should be very hard at all to come up with a well-built, family-friendly-but-mostly-for-children feature-length cartoon, and yet they feel somewhat like a vanishing breed; there's a lot of family-friendly-but-mostly-for-adults going on, and a lot of movies that meet nobody's definition of "well-built", but simple, nice, effective children's animation made with some level of care for effective storytelling, character-building, and visual artistry? Pretty damn rare, at that.

Easily the best of the three animated yeti/bigfoot movies to have weirdly bunched up in the last year (the others are Smallfoot and Missing Link), Abominable starts with a lonely teenager who's not coping with the recent unexpected death of her father, the only person in her life who really understood her emotionaly. So we are, like, securely in the realm of clichรฉ here, but I promise it's going to be okay. Because that character, Yi (Chloe Bennett), is sketched out with a really lovely degree of clear personality by writer-director Jill Culton (who has only previously directed the justly long-forgotten 2006 Open Season, but she also has a story credit on 2001's Monsters, Inc., which I think sufficiently counterbalances it), but not the kind of personality that happens when animation writers decide that a character needs to have "personality". Indeed, one of the biggest aspects of Yi's character arc for the film is that she can't actually articulate her wants and needs; she acts reflexively and blindly, letting her loneliness and hurt replace the usual "your conformist society is bringing me down, man" animated boilerplate with an understated central mystery: so, actually, why is Yi so prickly and insecure?

It takes most of the film's 97 minutes to answer that question in the most straightforward way possible (the "reveal" consists largely of the film declaring, "look, we already said her dad is dead, what else do you need?"), but it's a journey made more for Yi's benefit than ours. Along the way, she learns that her mom (Michelle Wong) and her absolutely phenomenal sarcastic grandma (Tsai Chin) aren't the pains in the ass they seem like. She also bonds with a couple of adolescent friends of the family, preening social media addict Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and his younger cousin Peng (Albert Tsai), a bouncy, friendless kid. And with a baby yeti (its grunts and snorts provided by Joseph Izzo). So that, of course, is the actual plot: obsessed, wealthy businessman Burnish (Eddie Izzard) has spent most of the last several years trying to prove to the world that yetis exist, and with the help of morally-conflicted zoologist Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), he's almost managed to do it, bringing the animal to Shanghai where it escaped. Yi happens to be the first human it meets, and she decides quite on the spot to help it return to its home in the Himalayas, all the way across China.

There is, again, not much of anything new here, except the Chinese setting, and that is somewhat interesting, from an industrial standpoint at least. Abominable is serving two masters that I've been fascinated by for a while now: the persistent attempts by the Chinese animation industry to find a toehold in international markets, and DreamWorks Animation's various experiments in finding new ways of stretching a dollar. The film is a co-production with Peal Studio, itself co-founded by DreamWorks and several Shanghai-based venture capital firms as an overseas animation farm for the American company's features, before Pearl was spun off into something somewhat autonomous. The last time the two studios collaborated, it was on the sublimely gorgeous Kung Fu Panda 3, still the most beautiful DreamWorks film that doesn't have the word "Dragon" in the title. That film cost nearly twice as much as Abominable, which implies exactly what you suppose it might imply: Abominable is a very nice-looking film, but certainly not a top-notch example of 3-D animation at its most ambitious and difficult. And that, of course, is part of where the setting comes into play; much like Kung Fu Panda 3, the more or less explicit target is for the film to turn a profit in China, and whatever it makes elsewhere will be just a bonus. Making it expressly Chinese is a way of aiming at that goal without spending Disney-sized piles of money on the project.

But just because Abominable was made for a winsome, almost laughable $75 million,* that doesn't mean it feels cheap. It just means that Culton and her team were obliged to find ways of turning their limited resources to their advantage. Which is something DreamWorks has gotten good at lately: both of their 2017 releases, The Boss Baby and Captain Underpants, were overt, and successful, attempts at finding aesthetically satisfying solutions to technologically pared-down animation. Abominable is maybe the most satisfying example yet: the film embraces simplicity without feeling simple, rendering its human characters with basic facial designs that open themselves up to a wide range of expressions in the clean, emotionally direct fashion of line drawings; the landscapes are designed with a rich array of bright colors that add depth and character to the relatively simple shapes and textures (this is most obvious in the case of the city, which honestly looks almost too simple compared to the rest of the movie). The places where the film indulges itself are chosen for maximum impact: the yeti, named Everest, turns out to have magical powers, which it uses to transform the world into explosions of flowers and mist, and there are just enough of these to give the whole movie a feeling of visual grandeur. Similarly, the film uses extravagant lighting trickery just a few times, but it makes them count (there's a light show in Shanghai that's one of the loveliest things DreamWorks has ever put out). Everest himself is the only particularly complicated bit of character animation, with his fuzzy face and languidly shaggy body, and even he's designed for cuteness rather than realism.

The crucial point is not that it's neat that the filmmakers have worked this all out, though I think it is neat. The crucial point is that, when it comes down to it, none of this ends up mattering. Abominable has such a warm script, populated by such appealing characters, that it doesn't need much more than bright colors and cute, expressive character designs to put itself over. This is an extremely generous, nice movie, finding what's best about nearly all of its characters and telling only simply, silly jokes that aren't even elaborate enough to be corny. Rather than comedy or adventure, the usual DreamWorks priorities, it focuses nearly all its attention on letting us figure out who Yi is, while letting her do the same thing. It's a character drama, in effect, written and performed with a great deal of empathy for the frustrations of being a lonely teen. The goals are small, but they're important, and the film has such bottomless sincerity about its subjects that it completely blows away any sense that it's all a little bit trite. God, sincerity! From a DreamWorks picture! What a long, strange decade it has been.




*Animation is expensive as hell, y'all.