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‘Smallfoot’ has a big heart

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It’s always nice when a movie surprises you.

Most of the time, you can generate a fairly accurate idea about a film simply by paying attention. All it takes is a couple of trailers, maybe a press tour interview or two, and you can form a good picture of what you’re going to get.

Most of the time … but not ALL the time.

“Smallfoot” is an animated offering, the second to be released by Sony through Warner Brothers Animation (2016’s “Storks” was the first). By all appearances, this was going to be a pretty straightforward and goofy bit of kiddie fare, with recognizable voice talent, decent 3D animation and a handful of not-bad songs. And it is that – but it’s also a little bit more.

Just beneath the surface of this story about a young Yeti’s quest to prove the existence of the mythical Smallfoot is a surprisingly sophisticated allegory about the consequences of conformity and the importance of questioning authority. Oh, and the songs are catchy too.

Migo (Channing Tatum, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”) is a young Yeti living in an isolated village atop a mountain. His father Dorgle (Danny DeVito, TV’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) is the Ringer of the Gong, the Yeti responsible for ringing the gong that wakes up the Golden Snail that lights up the sky every day.

The tale of the Snail – along with all of the other rules and regulations that guide the village – come from a variety of stones held and interpreted by the Stonekeeper (Common, “Here and Now”). Migo is happy with his life and content to accept all of the wisdom of the stones blindly and without question.

His worldview is altered forever, however, when he inadvertently encounters a Smallfoot (a human whose plane crashed on the mountaintop). He returns to the village to tell everyone what he saw, but is unable to provide any proof. The Stonekeeper, eager to maintain order, sends Migo away until he can come to terms with the “truth” of the situation.

During his banishment, Migo is brought into the circle of the Smallfoot Evidentiary Society (SES), a small group of outcasts whose members include Gwangi (NBA star LeBron James), Kolka (Gina Rodriguez, “Annihilation”) and Fleem (Ely Henry, “Some Freaks”). Their leader, however, is far from an outcast – she is Meechee (Zendaya, “The Greatest Showman”), Migo’s crush … and the Stonekeeper’s daughter.

Meanwhile, at the base of the mountain – below the impenetrable cloud cover – a nature show host named Percy Patterson (James Corden, “Peter Rabbit”) is trying to figure out a way to regain the audience that has abandoned him in recent years. His plan? To dress his producer like a Yeti and film it in an effort to go viral and rekindle interest in his show.

But when Migo and Percy’s paths cross – and Migo brings Percy back to his village – the orderly Yeti society is thrown into chaos. Questions beget questions beget questions, and it isn’t long before Migo finds himself in the midst of a centuries-old conspiracy – one surrounding an existential threat to all of Yeti-dom. He’s left to decide what’s best for his people – the status quo … or the truth.

There’s a wonderful goofiness to “Smallfoot” that kids are going to love. There’s a whiff of the joyful anarchy of classic Warner Brothers animation in here as well; the first third of the movie especially features the sort of gleeful disregard for the laws of physics that mark those early cartoons. Now, I’m not saying this movie measures up to old-school Looney Tunes or anything, but there are moments that will spark a smile of recognition for more experienced viewers.

And the songs are solid as well. While “Smallfoot” isn’t quite a musical – call it a movie with music – there are a handful of decent tunes. Tatum does a good job with the toe-tapping and surprisingly funny opening number “Perfection,” while Corden has a fun riff on the Queen classic “Under Pressure” with “Percy’s Pressure.” The two musician-turned-actors shine as well – Zendaya is great with “Wonderful Life” while Common absolutely crushes “Let It Lie.”

But what makes “Smallfoot” such an interesting movie is the relative sophistication of the message. Yes, it’s a movie about Yetis “discovering” a human, but it’s also an allegory for the value that comes from making informed decisions. It’s about the importance of allowing your mind to be changed, to be willing to accept new ideas rather than being completely bound by tradition. It’s a significant theme – one of particular relevance in today’s world.

Tatum plays Migo with an easy charm. Zendaya matches that charm as Meechee. Common is a rumbly-voiced marvel as the Stonekeeper. Corden always shines as a voice performer; this role is no different. Rodriguez is very good and LeBron holds his own, while DeVito’s distinctive voice is a perfect fit.

“Smallfoot” doesn’t quite reach the heights of some of the finest animated fare out there, but it’s pretty darned good. It works as pure entertainment, yes, but it also carries with it a message of unexpected value.

[4 out of 5]

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