Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Abominable: Oscar Qualified

It is an animated film, but it touches on several of China’s territorial disputes. The plucky young heroes are on the road to Mt. Everest, claimed by both China and Nepal, but the entire nation of Tibet is an occupied sovereign state. Yet, passions were really enflamed by the blink-and-you-missed-it appearance of China’s so-called “Nine-Dash Line” demarcating their illegal claim to hegemony over the South China Sea. It was on-screen long enough for Vietnam to ban the film and Malaysia to demand the scene be cut. Perversely, this time around, the Hollywood studio declined snip the offending image, presumably for fear of offending China. The geopolitical context is quite ugly, but the story and characters are cute in Jill Culton’s Abominable, a Chinese co-production co-directed by Todd Wilderman, which releases today on DVD.

Young Yi still mourns the loss of her father, from whom she first learned violin. As a coping mechanism, she works relentlessly, hoping to save enough money for the trip across China they always dreamed of taking. Then one night, she comes face to face with a giant hairy monster on the roof of her building.

The shy creature she dubs “Everest,” due to the clear homesick yearning inspired by a Mt. Everest billboard, is a fugitive from the sinister Burnish Corporation. Years ago, Mr. Burnish (an Anglo elite, naturally) swore he saw a yeti, but the world scoffed, so he has obsessively searched for another such beast ever since. Actually, Burnish (who looks a lot like Waldorf from the Muppets) is not nearly as nasty as his ambitious science advisor, Dr. Zara. She will be in hot pursuit behind Yi as she tries to lead Everest back home. She will have the dubious help of her enthusiastic little cousin Peng and the reluctant company of her popular, Fuerdai-esque neighbor Jin.

No doubt about it, Everest is just a big, endearing fur ball. His character design is rather simple, but totally charming. Yi is also likably earnest and resourceful. However, the best aspect of the animation are the strikingly scenic backdrops. From the sparkle of the Shanghai skyline to grandeur of Leshan Giant Buddha, Abominable truly looks terrific.

Of course, the story is a bit shopworn, incorporating elements from all kinds of prior films, such as Free Willy, Okja, and E.T. At least, it is not as anti-west as it initially appears, given Burnish’s redemptive arc. Regardless, you probably think you know exactly where this is all heading and you really should be right.

It is definitely worth seeing the Leshan Giant Buddha with a big hairy yeti, especially when there is stirring violin accompaniment (probably the best music of the film). It is fully qualified for Oscar consideration as best animated feature this year. Funan is by far the best of the contenders, by far, but Abominable is still better than at least half of the field. The film is recommended, but not its geopolitics. Mostly worth seeing for the visuals and warm, fuzzy Everest, Abominable is now available on DVD.