For a review of “Smallfoot,”
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as the saying goes. That seems to be the approach taken by the screenwriters of the new animated feature “Smallfoot.” The story is actually “Bigfoot,” but it hinges on a clever reversal of perspective, centering on a tribe of Yetis in the Himalayas who fear the dreaded unknown creature known to them as Smallfoot.
The mysterious beings clad their feet in leather cases with ridged soles. They carry rolls of soft white paper in zippered satchels. That’s right, Smallfoot is human, and the notion of taking a storied monster like Bigfoot and making him the hero, and humans the monster, is the fun of the movie, based on the book “Yeti Tracks” by Sergio Pablos. The film is cowritten and co-directed by Karey Kirkpatrick (“Over the Hedge”), while Jason Reisig co-directs, with Clare Sera, John Requa, and Glenn Ficarra as co-writers.
The story itself is one we’ve seen before, just with a twist or two. Our hero, Migo (Channing Tatum), is a happy-go-lucky Yeti who loves his small snowy village so much he sings a song about the way it works in perfect harmony. Yes, you may be getting flashbacks to “Where You Are” from “Moana,” or “Belle” from “Beauty and the Beast,” but Migo is far more loyally unquestioning and optimistic than his Disney counterparts. But as soon as you hear the song, we know where we’re going with “Smallfoot” — a young, but brave naïf who loves their home will, by some turn of events, be thrust outside of their comfort zone, discover something new, go on an adventure and question everything they’ve ever known. And that’s exactly what happens.
Migo has a chance encounter with a smallfoot pilot who crash lands on the mountain. He tries to tell his village, though he’s rebuffed and outcast by the Stonekeeper (Common), who denies his assertion. So Migo hooks up with the secret Smallfoot Evidentiary Society, and they go hunting for evidence of smallfoots. In a local village, Migo scoops up Percy (James Corden), an animal/adventure TV host who sees his own opportunity in the encounter.
Although “Smallfoot” is formulaic and predictable, what sets it apart is its willingness to dive into the themes of questioning blind faith within small communities. The Stonekeeper has great reason to keep the village isolated and psychologically controlled with myth and legend — it keeps them safe, secure and to the status quo. But there’s no growth, no innovation, and Migo’s father, Dorgle (Danny DeVito), keeps smashing his head into a gong every morning because The Stonekeeper told him it makes the sun rise. It’s actually a brilliant way to teach younger audiences about fake news and gaslighting at an early age.
The animated designs are gorgeous. The Yeti characters are diverse in shape, pastel color and hair designs, and their goofy yet friendly forms are set against picturesque snowy mountain landscapes and tangerine skies. It’s simple, but beautiful and effective, while the village is lovingly, busily rendered with detail.
The songs, by Zendaya, who voices Meechee, and pop stars like One Direction member Niall Horan are a bit forgettable, but it’s rare to see a proper animated musical feature these days, and “Smallfoot” leans into that. Tatum also turns in a charming vocal performance as the bright-eyed Migo who learns what it means to think for himself.
While “Smallfoot” follows a familiar path, it’s what it does with the journey that makes it worth watching.
“Smallfoot,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG for some action, rude humor, and thematic elements. Running time: 96 minutes. ★★½
For years, putting feisty comic Kevin Hart across from any movie star would automatically light a fire underneath an otherwise middling comedy. He was the magic ingredient, the spice that would enliven anything. But recently, Hart has been usurped as the secret sauce in any comedy sandwich. The challenger to his throne is “Girls Trip” breakout star Tiffany Haddish, and it was only a matter of time before the two faced off in a war of quippy comebacks. But in Malcolm D. Lee’s “Night School,” co-starring Hart and Haddish, Hart is now the star who needs a wacky supporting cast to prop him up this time around.
Hart characters have become a genre unto their own. He plays men with outsize personalities, hustlers and salesmen who punch above their weight class when it comes to love interests and have a tenuous relationship with the truth. In a climatic speech in “Night School,” Hart’s character, Teddy, announces “I’m a liar. I’m a loudmouth hustler,” and it’s one of the most honest moments in his filmography.
Because we know Hart’s cinematic persona so well by now, what livens up “Night School” — aside from Haddish, who plays his supportive, yet shockingly violent teacher — is the band of weirdos that are his classmates. Lee has assembled a group of beloved comic character actors to surround Hart and offer him some fodder off which to bounce. Rob Riggle, Al Madrigal, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Romany Malco embody a group of hilariously detailed characters that could easily carry their own spinoffs. Malco is especially funny as the conspiracy theory-spouting Jalen, who fires off couplets about the Illuminati and robots so quickly no one knows what hit them.
The crew is what carries “Night School” through the bumpy patches. The writing of Haddish’s character Carrie is particularly inconsistent — she’s at once sweet, self-sacrificing and caring, but she’s also incredibly tough, battering her night school students with retorts, insults, tough love and sometimes even her fists and feet. You can just never quite get a handle on who her character is. But if any filmmakers have yet to consider Haddish for an action film, her powerful performance in the MMA ring with Hart is a worthy audition.
The film’s identity crisis may come from the six (six!) credited writers on the project. The pace and structure are incredibly strange, and the flailing romance between Teddy and his fiancée Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is formulaic and bland. Hart’s on-screen romances always have the same conflict — he’s immature — and by this iteration, it’s tired.
Thank goodness for Riggle, Malco, Madrigal and Rajskub, who bring enough weird energy, bizarre asides and just plain moxie to their characters. A lot of the humor plays fast and loose with ethnic and cultural stereotypes, and it isn’t always successful. But the night school classmates are what makes the comedy work, and there are indeed some very funny moments. That’s not to say Hart and Haddish don’t bring the laughs. They do, but it’s nothing surprising or fresh, and it seems like their characters weren’t exactly written, so much as room was left in the script for the two stand-ups to riff. “Night School” makes the grade, but just barely. It still needs a little bit of remedial work.
“Night School,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, language, some drug references and violence. Running time: 111 minutes. ★★½
Tiffany Haddish, left, and Kevin Hart star in the new Universal Pictures film “Night School,” in theaters nationwide today.