The animated musical tale “Smallfoot” sneaks up on a viewer, presenting at first as a simple fish-out-of-water story but slowly revealing its true intentions as a clever morality play about the costs and benefits of telling the truth.
Up on a lonely mountain in the Himalayas, a village of Yeti live a blissful existence. They believe their mountain is an island floating in the clouds, supported by giant mammoth who must be fed ice every day — which is the villagers’ main employment. Every morning, the gong ringer, Dorgle (voiced by Danny DeVito), wakes the great glowing snail, which then crawls across the sky bringing the Yeti daylight. The Yeti’s leader, the Stone Keeper (voiced by Common), wears a robe of stones, each one imprinted with one of the village’s unbreakable laws, which are never to be questioned, so (almost) no one ever does.
Dorgle is ready to pass on his gong-ringing job — which involves catapulting himself to strike the gong with his head — to his son, Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum). While practicing, Migo gets distracted by the Stone Keeper’s pretty daughter Meechee (voiced by Zendaya), and is thrown to the edge of the mountain. There, he sees a giant silver bird (we’d call it an airplane) crashing nearby, and depositing a tiny creature, a Smallfoot, that the stones say doesn’t exist. The Smallfoot goes over the edge before Migo can show him to the rest of the village, so nobody believes him.
Well, almost nobody. Migo learns there’s a group of Yeti, disregarded as cranks by the rest of the village, who have formed the SES, the Smallfoot Evidentiary Society, to prove that the Smallfoot exist. Doing that, though, could endanger the carefully ordered way of life of the Yeti villagers — and the Stone Keeper will go to great lengths to keep that from happening.
Meanwhile, below the clouds, we meet Percy (voiced by James Corden), a nature-show host who is panicking that his ratings and social-media clicks are in the basement. He’s so desperate that he considers faking a Yeti sighting, but his unflinchingly honest assistant Brenda (voiced by Yara Shahidi) refuses to wear the Yeti costume and stilts Percy brought on the trip. When Percy meets Migo, the encounter rattles both of them, and leaves each with a moral dilemma about whether to tell the truth, no matter the consequences.
Director Karey Kirkpatrick (“Over the Hedge”) has a droll sense of humor — his writing credits include “Chicken Run” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” — and it’s well deployed as Percy and Migo’s worlds ultimately collide. There are plenty of songs dotting the narrative, but the radio-friendly ones (like Zendaya’s early track, or Niall Horan’s folksy number over the closing credits) aren’t as interesting as Corden’s nervous rap to “Under Pressure” or Common’s intense number in which the Stone Keeper explains the harsh realities of Yeti life.
With inventive visual gags and an oddball voice cast (which includes Gina Rodriguez and LeBron James), “Smallfoot” turns out to be a free-wheeling comic delight. There’s also a well-delivered lesson about the importance of truth, but you don’t have to tell the kids that.
Opens Friday, Sept. 28 at theaters everywhere. Rated PG for some action, rude humor and thematic elements. Running time: 96 minutes.