SMALLFOOT – CLEVER AND SWEET WITH A SURPRISINGLY THOUGHTFUL UNDERLYING MESSAGE

SHORT TAKE:

Clean, genuinely funny, very kid-friendly movie about the sequence of events which results when a village of yetis is revealed to a "smallfoot"/human.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anybody can go but be advised, at 96 minutes, it is about 20 minutes too long for the average pre-kindergartner.

LONG TAKE:

Fides et Ratio was an encyclical by Saint Pope John Paul II in 1998. Translated, the title means "Faith and Reason". In it, then Pope, now Saint John Paul II explains that faith without reason leads to superstition and reason without faith leads to nihilism and relativism. Smallfoot, surprisingly, tackles the former of these heady, complex philosophical musings.

While I do not normally like to lead with a lot of spoilers, when analysing for a movie whose demographic is young children, as a parent, I would want full disclosure before bringing MY smallfoot, so I offer the same to you readers.

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

This children's tale begins with a colony of yetis who live high up on a mountain, cut off visually from the rest of the world by a constant ring of clouds. Our protagonist is a good natured, happy-go-lucky yeti named Migo (Channing Tatum) whose personality almost exactly parallels that of Chris Pratt's eternally optimistic Emmett from The Lego Movie. You almost expect him to burst out with "Everything is Awesome" as he strolls through the yeti village. This is not meant as a criticism. It's actually quite cute as he observes the seemingly pointless Rube Goldberg occupations to which everyone is assigned, but which are explained later.

The songs are, BTW, quite catchy and one in particular, sung by the female protagonist and Migo's love interest, Meechee (Zendaya from The Greatest Showman), "Wonderful Life", features some thoughtful lyrics:

Take a look around
And see the world we think we know
Then look closer
There's more to life than meets the eye
A beauty to behold
It's all much bigger than we know.

She sings this as she shows things to Migo he never noticed, like a small butterfly crystalized in a frozen stalactite, and the details in a snowflake. Beautiful imagery for a lovely idea: that the more we see, the more we realize the grandeur in Creation.

Their belief system, literally written in stone, is a seemingly random collection of unquestioned statements, including the command that if you feel the urge to question one of the stones you should "push it down" and not think about it. The stones describe strange and mythical beasts which must be fed or cooled or tended to in odd ways. One stone commands an absolute dismissal of the possibility that there could be anything below the cloudline. The stones are worn like scale armour by the tribal leader, Stonekeeper, (Lonnie Rashid Lynn aka the rapper Common). Migo, the son of Gorgle, the Gong Ringer (Danny DeVito) is one of the biggest stone-trusting advocates in the village, until one day Migo, by chance, observes a plane crash and the ejection of a smallfoot from this flying metal object. Problem is: the existence of smallfoot is absolutely denied by one of the earliest stones. No one will believe Migo as the evidence is quickly blown off the mountain.

Meanwhile, Percy, James Corden (voice of Peter Rabbit and guest companion in a couple of Matt Smith Dr. Who's) is the host of an animal show which is on the decline. The ejected pilot happens upon Percy with his story of sighting a yeti, and before Percy, desperate for ratings, can take advantage of this knowledge, Migo appears, looking for the pilot and proof of his smallfoot story. Their first contact is cute and clever and takes full advantage of their inability to immediately communicate.

Tatum and Corden do a wonderful job of voicing the life into their respective characters and the writers do an excellent job with the miscommunications which arise from their inability to understand each other.

The movie is occasionally laugh out loud funny. It is completely clean – no bad language and, a rarity, totally innuendo free.

As the plot progresses it is revealed that the Stonekeeper is wearing a set of lies, deliberately created to protect the village because of previous lethal encounters with humans, generations ago. The stones' commands all begin to form a pattern: If smallfoot does not exist then there's no reason to go look for them. The ring of clouds is manufactured for camouflage by the steam generating machine deep within the mountain which the ice ball production and turning gears on the surface facilitates. The other stones which describe a sky snail and mammoths under the clouds which are cooled by the ice balls all were made up and commanded to be accepted without question to protect the villagers from leaving and revealing their village.

There are plot points in Smallfoot which harken back to other movies, certainly: the hidden city of Wakanda in Black Panther, and a concept accepted without question which keeps two potentially friendly but very dissimilar groups apart, but which is a complete lie, as in Monsters, Inc. for example, that children are dangerously toxic. (I won't even discuss The Village because Smallfoot is a much better movie). But Smallfoot is not a derivative of any of them.

If I make the movie sound like it is heavily philosophical, it is not. The movie plays out like any normal child friendly film with lots of slap stick, goofy looking characters, Bugs Bunny-level pratfalls, bright colors, and non-lethal force. (Exs: an angry mama bear appears to be attacking, but when translated is just loudly chiding Migo for disturbing her family from their hibernation when it took her WEEKS to get her cubs to sleep. A crashing helicopter's propellors are caught in trees spinning the body of the copter and the pilot emerges unscathed but incredibly dizzy.)

But it is the thoughtful story and clever characters that put Smallfoot above the general mishmash of kid movies which usually populate the screen. Inevitably the yetis' faith without reason in the commands on the stones, about which Saint Pope John Paul II cautioned, breeds a mindless superstition requiring blind belief, and when challenged by truth, falls apart. It is only when reason and faith come together – when truth is combined with some earned trust between Migo and Percy, that a peaceful diplomatic solution is possible.

I liked Smallfoot. It has all the charm of a harmless silly kid movie, adds sly but innocent humor for the adults, and has an intelligent underlying theme. The characters are well fleshed out for the cast of an elementary school level movie. Plus the songs are catchy and cute without being heavy handed and are sparingly used. And best of ALL – it did NOT go for the STUPID, almost UBIQUITOUS "female empowerment" message with which we are regularly bludgeoned and which has ruined entire franchises (I'd sneeze the words Star Wars if I was standing right in front of you to make the point, but I'm not so you'll just have to imagine that.)

My only real complaint is that it was a bit too long, by about 20 minutes, for the primary school demographic to which the producers were aiming. My two year old grandson loved it and was mesmerized until the last bit and wanted to walk around while watching the denouement. At 96 minutes it really should have gone through one more trimming. 

Aside from that very small criticism, Smallfoot is a delightful film with a bit more meat on its bones than you might expect or is carried on your average kid movie. It will entertain even the littlest kids, but still provide mom and dad with something worthwhile to mull over with even the oldest.Arguably the best kid movie I've since in 2018 yet(i)…..sorry couldn't resist.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN – ENCHANTING MUSICAL BASED ON THE SPIRIT OF P.T. BARNUM

SHORT TAKE: Captivating, beautiful, family friendly musical loosely based on the life of P.T. Barnum's early business life and the people on the fringes of society he turned into a family.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT: EVERYONE!!!!!

LONG TAKE:

Donald O’Conner said: "Always leave them wanting more." And in the tradition of PT Barnum, about whom this movie was made – The Greatest Showman does just that.

Half way through the very first opening number I wanted to see it all again. Every scene, every song was a marvel – as compelling, exciting, absorbing and mesmerizing as the Barnum and Bailey Circus shows which enthralled millions of people for 146 years.

PT Barnum is best known as the inventor of the traveling circus, the King of Humbugs, the displayer of the human oddity, the man who said "There’s a sucker born every minute" EVEN THOUGH there is no evidence proving that he actually did say it! In fact, Barnum was also a philanthropist, the founder of Bridgeport Hospital, promoter of gas lighting, improved water systems, abolitionist, and pro-life/anti-contraception advocate.

However, the movie The Greatest Showman is not about his altruistic activities. The movie The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman is VERY VERY loosely based upon the life, enterprises, fortunes, failures and inspiration of PT Barnum as showman.

PT Barnum also once said: "A human soul, that God has created and Christ died for, is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit."

It is from the core of this latter philosophy that this screenplay was born. The Greatest Showman is more what PT Barnum represented than about the exact details of the man’s life. The Greatest Showman is about joy, life, family, turning chicken feathers into chicken salad, about never giving up, and overcoming internal as well as external handicaps, and rising above failure and rejection. It is also about embracing with gusto the challenges that God has bequeathed upon every individual soul – be it physical deformity, an unusual height, albinism, being a Siamese Twin, or whether the challenges come from being born into poverty and disadvantage. This story is about learning what is truly important in one’s life and what defines your home and your family.

Barnum’s biography as interpreted by screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, directed by Michael Gracey, and choreographed by Ashley Wallen, starts as the son of an impoverished tailor. Barnum is bright, ambitious, hard working and imaginative. Barnum joins the railroad, takes clerical positions, tries to bring his innovative ideas to his employers and eventually earns enough to support a family. He marries his childhood sweetheart and lifelong friend Charity (Michelle "Oz the Great and Powerful" Williams), against her family’s wishes. They live a modest life but Barnum wants more. When the company he works for goes bankrupt he carves out a unique niche in entertainment singlehandedly with people who have largely been ostracized by society – not for anything they have done but for the physical attributes with which they were born.

In the troupe are Lettie (Keata Settle) the bearded lady and lead female singer in the circus, and General Tom Thumb (whose name in real life was Charles Stratton who was actually 2 feet 10 inches tall) played by the 4 foot 2 inch Sam Humphreys with effects that convincingly makes him fit into the smaller shoes of the original General Thumb.

Theater actor Eric Anderson has a small but rather adorable part as Mr. O'Malley, a skilled pickpocket Barnum meets while on the receiving end of O'Malley trade, who Barnum refashions into a magician and then his box office manager. Far too little is made of this charming character and he just kind of disappears after the first half of the movie in a regrettable editing decision by the film makers.

Barnum's gift is taking the weaknesses and apparent handicaps in others and turning them into strengths. He takes people who hide because of their birth defects and turns them into proud headliners for all the world to see. He takes a petty thief and puts him in charge of his money. He takes a drunken society playwright and convinces him to become the junior partner in an enterprise that will make him a societal outcast but a far happier and more fulfilled man. He takes isolated people and forms them into a family. Barnum understands people and cares about them deeply. This is his gift. But Barnum must learn that not all handicaps are visible and is eventually forced to confront his own prideful self inflicted deformities.

And the story is told with brilliant colorful musical numbers which light up and leap from the screen in the only way that really counts – not via 3D but through panache and vibrant beautiful melodies performed with style and absolutely irresistible enthusiasm.

Hugh Jackman as PT Barnum and Michelle Williams his wife Charity, sing with joyful abandon and dance with infectious charm, gravity defying skill, and tremendous energy. Zac Efron plays Phillip Carlyle, an unhappy swell with a flair for story telling who Barnum entices into his troupe. Efron has grown well beyond his High School Musical days into an accomplished actor and hoofer, and proves he can keep up with even the indefatiguable Jackman. Zendaya performs as the trapese artist Anne with whom Efron’s Phillip falls in love. Efron and Zendaya do all their own flying dancing swinging stunts in an incredible scene where they dance a love song as athletic as the barn raising in 7 Brides for 7 Brothers and as graceful as Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in — well, anything! Most of it is performed flying through the air on rigging and without nets (though interviews revealed they were, thankfully, harnessed for safety).

I can’t say enough good things about this movie. It’s uplifting, beautiful to watch, wonderful to listen to, with brilliant editing that meshes music to dance and slow motion effects used with admirable and effective restraint.

Honestly the only complaint I have is that there was not enough of it. It was too short. You know how some movies – a lot now a days frankly – would benefit from some serious chopping – the Hobbit trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Pearl Harbor all come to mind. But rarely do you come across a movie which you wish was LONGER.

The progress of Barnum’s jump from childhood to adulthood was blinked over and I would not have minded more of his progress from urchin to self supporting adult. Same for Barnum’s initial success as a "circus" owner to wealthy entrepreneur. Easily 5 or 6 more songs and another hour would have been more than welcome. There could have been more of Mr. O'Malley and included backstories on some of the other performers who are mostly seen in the group dances. And there were even a couple of my favorite lines from the trailer which were cut. It is almost as though the relative newbie director Gracey did not have the courage of his convictions. But he needn’t have worried. What is there is brilliant and entrancing.

I loved this movie not just for the performances by Jackman, Zendaya and Efron which were amazing – blending the acting with the singing and dancing seamlessly as only accomplished confident hoofers can. I also loved the morality tale played out in Barnum’s life as he is forced to reconsider what are those things that make his life worthwhile.

This is an uplifting delightful movie for the entire family. And although I would have loved for it to be another hour long, they employed Mr. O’Connor’s sage words and left us wanting more. I think I’ll just go see it again …. and take everyone I know.

PT Barnum also once said: "The noblest art is that of making others happy." The film makers of this movie about his life I believe are noble souls indeed.