DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio film to be released 27 September
Sixteen-year-old Yi has a lot on her plate in the 2019 film Abominable and it’s not just her grandmother’s delicious bao.
Not the least of her worries is a young Yeti that suddenly appears on her apartment rooftop in the middle of her urban Shanghai hometown. That baby giant wants to reunite with his own family — in the Himalayas. Yi takes charge to get him there.
This sets the stage for the animated adventure written and directed by Jill Culton (Monster’s Inc., Open Season), and brought to a global audience by DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio.
What makes Abominable unforgettable is not its dreamy palette of colors or gorgeous animation, nor its sonorous soundtrack, although that’s all there. Its magic is in its detail and depth that capture emotional truths that resonate at all ages.
“It’s funny. A lot of the time animation is like that — pure entertainment for kids,” Culton said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “But I’m always of the hope there’s a significant message … so when families leave the theater they go away talking about it.”
Abominable offers lots for families to talk about. At its heart is a teenage heroine who struggles with the death of her father, the expectations of her grandmother and mother and juggling part time jobs that leave her out of the cool crowd. There’s a sense of loss, isolation and heartbreak so dear it’s almost difficult to touch.
Culton said her own experience inspired this theme of disconnection and reconnection with family. When she was a teenager, her parents divorced. That devastated her.
“As a filmmaker and writer, I have to be vulnerable myself,” Culton said. “Dealing with death or divorce, there’s a lot of people who can relate to that.
“If you tell those stories, you have to tell them truthfully. People get emotional, and that’s a good thing. They’re relating to the characters and they’re going through their own process of potential healing.”
“People get emotional, and that’s a good thing. They’re relating to the characters and they’re going through their own process of potential healing.”
From Yi’s point of view, Culton’s work dives into these personal themes fearlessly. “When you’re a storyteller, you have to be vulnerable enough to dive deep into these characters and pull out the honesty and pull out the hardships and how they deal with them,” Culton said.
And Yi (Chloe Bennet) deals. She finds reconnection through unlikely friendships with the vain socialite Jin who turns out to be a loyal softie (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and his rambunctious little cousin Peng (Albert Tsai).
Toughing it out together through one hard journey to the Himalayas with Everest the Yeti (Joseph Izzo), their relationship blossoms from one of friendship to family. They expand the definition of what family can mean.
“People resonate with those truths,” Culton said. “Picking universal themes like disconnection and reconnection in a family, that’s something everyone goes through.”
Storytelling a lifelong practice
By crafting fiction, Culton finds truth, and always has.
“I lived in a world of imagination as a kid,” she said. Culton recalls having a drawer full of plastic animals. She said she’d pull out the toy elephants and Tyrannosaurus rex and make up stories about them.
Culton eventually went on to bring stories to the silver screen when she studied at the California Institute of the Arts and subsequently launched her career as a storyboard artist at Pixar.
“Animation is a perfect outlet for that. You can create worlds, you can create characters. You can create Yetis that don’t exist, and have kids walk out of the theater thinking they do,” Culton said. “That’s such a privilege.”
Postcard worthy settings
For Abominable Culton and her team worked to ground fiction in reality. The result is a movie that makes real places feel larger than life.
DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio brought together a crew with an international presence, including in the United States and China. They invested in “trying to get that authenticity down to the details.”
“That was special,” Culton said of the global crew’s hands-on involvement.
They took note of Shanghai’s glass, steel and neon, the chatter on the streets, the interior of apartments and the food on the table to capture just-so in the film.
The film’s natural landscapes also feel like a better-than-postcard-perfect rendition of the locales that inspired them.
“People know about the cities and the Great Wall, but not always the Leshan Buddha or the Gobi Desert,” Culton said. “This country is vast and it’s beautiful. I was very inspired by that and wanted to showcase it in the film.”
Made for a global audience
Abominable captures details inspired by a particular place, but its characters ring true elsewhere too.
“Whatever literal walls that are being threatened to go up, story is the thing that brings us all together. Even though this movie’s set in China, we’re all so similar,” Culton said.
“I hope it relates with people all over the world and no matter where you are, you can say, ‘I know that kind of person.’”
Abominable hits theaters 27 September in the United States and 1 October in China.
Read a review of Abominable.