It is a rare occurrence to find a kid-friendly animated film these days that actually surprises and delights. DreamWorks’ “Abominable,” written and directed by Jill Culton, does indeed surprise and delight, all while following a familiar hero’s journey. Part “E.T.” and part “King Kong,” it fits into the category of movies such as “The Iron Giant,” “Lilo & Stitch” and the “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise, where plucky kids bond with strange, exotic creatures and attempt to save them from the capitalistic forces of exploitation. “Abominable” doesn’t change this formula; it just executes it exceptionally well, with a fresh perspective and plenty of magic.
The creature in question is a Yeti, which Yi (Chloe Bennet) unexpectedly encounters on the roof of her Shanghai apartment building where he’s seeking shelter from the predatory Burnish Industries. The teenage Yi has been mourning the loss of her father and yearning for adventure. In short order, she decides to help the Yeti, whom she nicknames Everest, find his way home. Her pals, the adorably earnest and rotund Peng (Albert Tsai), and his cousin, the suave, phone-addicted Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), also find themselves on the journey to deposit their new furry friend back in the Himalayas.
Along the way, Yi grapples with grief, family and her identity. This is an emotionally complex path, because the main characters are slightly older than in your typical kids’ movie (they would fit right in with the “Stranger Things” teens) and their emotional range is greater, more nuanced. It’s also worth noting that the film, a Chinese co-production with Pearl Studio, has a specifically Chinese perspective, the culture imprinted in both small details and larger worldviews and philosophies. (Fun fact: Tenzing Norgay Trainor is the grandson of Tenzing Norgay, who with Sir Edmund Hillary was first to summit Mt. Everest).
The expected happens: harrowing chase scenes with Yi, Peng, Jin and Everest pursued by the nefarious Burnish Industries team, including the elderly adventurer Mr. Burnish (Eddie Izzard), who loves nature so much he wants to possess it all, and his hired zoologist, the two-faced Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson). But the unexpected also happens, and frequently. The kids discover that Everest is more than just a large, cuddly friend. He possesses magic powers, turning the natural world into a surreal, dreamlike playground, exploding blueberries in Wonka-like fashion and growing dandelions into outrageously sized helicopters. The kids surf the flower fields with Everest and glide on koi fish clouds. His powers help them return to his Himalayan home, while they discover the magic within themselves.
The animation and production design are stunning, from the neon lights of the urban spaces to the tiny fishing villages and wide-open spaces the city kids discover along the way. There are a few breathtakingly beautiful sequences: getting barreled in a field of brilliant yellow wildflowers, stargazing in a pink willow tree. Everest’s wide, grinning visage calls to mind Toothless the dragon. He’s a goofy, loving, puppylike creature who can suddenly harness all the energy of the world with a rumbling, deep bass hum, conjuring lights and vibrations from the ether itself.
The startlingly profound and moving message we’re left with is a universal one: If we care for nature and animals with compassion and understanding, there’s a larger, unseen magic that just might reveal itself to you and through you.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Starts Sept. 27 in general release