By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD— “Smallfoot” is an entertaining family-friendly animated feature about mountaintop-dwelling Yetis and valley-based humans getting to know each other for the first time, enhanced by a half-dozen toe-tapping original songs. The Warner Bros. Animation (WAG) feature also carries relevant underlying messages about the pitfalls of xenophobia, the unreliability of a numbers-focused news media and the danger of blindly following dogma.
Channing Tatum, Zendaya, Common, Gina Rodriguez and James Cordon lend their voices to the main characters in the film directed by veteran animated feature filmmaker and playwright/composer Karey Kirkpatrick (“James and the Giant Peach,” “Over the Hedge” and Broadway’s “Something Rotten!”)
In an exclusive interview, Kirkpatrick spoke about telling this simple tale about friendship, acceptance and tolerance.
Tatum (“Magic Mike”) voices the character of Migo, a young Yeti, who accidentally meets a human one day near his mountaintop village above the clouds run by the authoritarian leader Stonekeeper (Common). That meeting marks a moment of awareness for Migo, who begins to question everything he has been taught in his tight-knit, isolated community. Namely, that a species known as humans exist below his secluded, safe and structured homeland, contrary to the strict laws and beliefs that nothing exists below their realm. With a few other outcast Yeti doubters, Migo embarks on a journey to find out what lies below the clouds for himself. His friends, including his forward-thinking friend Meechee (Rodriguez), lower him by rope over a cliff. Expecting to find a vast void, Migo instead discovers a human village, where a ratings-hungry reporter named Percy (Cordon) believes he can exploit the Yeti (or Bigfoot) sighting to save his flagging career. When Migo finally confronts the Stonekeeper (Common) about his discovery, he is brought a secret cavern beneath the town where he is told how humans used to hunt Yetis so the Yetis retreated to the mountaintop, created rules engraved in stone and created a cloud-cover to protect them from ever being hunted again.
As Migo’s friendship with Percy, an adventurous TV news reporter, evolves, so does their understanding of each other, but can they convince their respective communities to come together in friendship?
Tony-nominated Kirkpatrick, who is writing a Broadway musical based on the hit ‘80’s movie “Mrs. Doubtfire” with his composing partner and brother Wayne, spoke about flipping the mythology of Bigfoot and making an animated musical with an idealistic outcome.
Q: Though “Smallfoot” is a children’s film, it also carries a universal message about the pitfalls of xenophobia which is a very pressing issue these days.
Kirkpatrick: The world kind of changed while we were making this and we realized that the issues that the world was grappling sort of fit into what our movie was grappling with. The Internet, misinformation and skewed information for the gain of an agenda seems to be a very predominant theme right now. Everyone is grappling with how to deal with this—playing fast and loose with the truth.
Q: What inspired the story?
Kilpatrick: Sergio Pablos is a Spanish animator and director. He came up with the “Despicable Me” idea. He pitched this to Warner Bros Animation (WAG), and it was Bigfoot in reverse. John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who are producers on this and worked on the original idea with Sergio. I came in after that premise already had been set up and did some re-writing, and then segued into directing.
Premise is everything, especially in an animated movie, and this one is “Bigfoot in reverse.” We (humans) are the myth. I love mythic storytelling so turning a myth on its ear and exploring a unique point of view was a fun sandbox to play in.
Q: Was the Bigfoot phenomenon something you were familiar with?
Kilpatrick: As a kid growing up in the ‘70s, that famous photo of Bigfoot between the trees and then there was the myth of the Loch Ness monster—it was kind of an era for fuzzy photos of unexplained creatures, UFOs and other mysteries. I’m intrigued by the origins of those stories. Somebody saw something and then the nature of storytelling, suddenly Bigfoot got bigger, and the story traveled. That was a fun place to explore.
Q: You and your brother wrote a number of new songs for this. Would you call “Smallfoot” a musical?
Kirkpatrick: Yeah, in that the songs are used to advance the story and character. It wasn’t a musical until I came onboard last year. I had done a musical on Broadway, “Something Rotten!” and Allison Abbate (“Smallfoot” producer) saw it. She took it to WAG and one of the first things she did was decide to make this a musical. She believes musicals elevate animated movies. It’s true that with an animated movie, you can get away with breaking into song in a way that live action it’s a little more difficult. She asked me if I could make this a musical. So, I called my brother, Wayne, and we wrote “Wonderful Life” (sung by Zendaya). It wasn’t the opening number we have now but we put it into the story and it worked so we figured, “Let’s keep going.” So, we wrote four more songs. This has six songs (including a new version of Freddie Mercury/David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” called “Percy’s Pressure”).
That was a real thrill for me because, growing up, I was influenced by “Lady and the Tramp,” “Jungle Book” and “Pinocchio,” particularly the songs by the Sherman brothers. I think music helps to enhance the emotional intensity of scenes and getting to know a character by introducing them through songs. So, when Zendaya, who voices Meechee, sings “Wonderful Life,” suddenly you know more about her and it starts the relationship between her and Migo. Then you have James Cordon as Percy singing a new version of “Under Pressure,” and the Stonekeeper revealing (the mythology of the Yeti) through rap, it makes the sequence all the more special. (That sequence in which Common sings “Let it Lie”) was always the strongest moment throughout development as the story changed. That’s when the movie turned and it was about something else.
The first part of the movie you’re exploring that premise, having fun with the miscommunication and the characters, and then you get to that and you find out there is something more nefarious going on here.
Part of the problem with the scene was that the audience kind of determines that (the Stonekeeper) is right. This is how we would react. So, we struggled with the second half of the movie and trying to figure out what the happy ending would be. How is the Stonekeeper not right once the clouds are gone? Is that the end of Yetis?
We had written the song “Moment of Truth” and we decided that most people won’t be that way or if enough people aren’t that way and are accepting. We decided it’s a fable and we’re going to make a fairy tale happy ending. We’re going to make the ending as it should be.
Q: You have a voice cast that includes music artists like Common and Zendaya but you also have actor Channing Tatum, who previously sang a memorable number in the Coen Brother’s “Hail, Caesar!”
Kirkpatrick: When we decided to make it a musical, that was the first question when Channing was cast. Channing, Zendaya and Common already were cast. James (Cordon) hadn’t been cast yet but we wanted him. We’ve seen him sing. So, the big question was “Can Channing sing?” Well, he sang in “Hail, Caesar!” I said, “If we write the right kind of song that’s not ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning,’ where he has to hold these long, sustained notes, I know he can carry a tune and he’s extremely musical because he’s such a great dancer. So, we went to him and told him that the movie might be a musical and there would be an opening song. He was like, “What?” I told him not to worry because there would be (a chorus accompanying him) and he said OK.
It was a little outside of his comfort zone but he’s so game and was all-in. He said he’d give it a shot and if it sounded terrible, we could re-record it with someone else’s voice. So, we gave him a guide track so he could sing along to, but he could definitely carry a tune. He sings it a lot better than he gives himself credit.
Q: Is Percy based on anyone in particular?
Kirkpatrick: At first, we were sort of looking at (adventurer) Bear Grylls. But (Percy) ended up not as rough and rugged as him. I used to watch a show with my kids called “Zoboomafoo,” which were these super-enthusiastic animal guys. We liked the idea of somebody who’d lost their way and was jaded. He just wanted to fake the Yeti sighting because he wanted ratings. That also felt very current—he just wanted to get some hits on YouTube so he could be relevant again. All he wants is for his video to go viral so he can get his show back.
You’re always looking for how to make the unholy alliance (between your protagonists). So, we always loved the clash between Migo at the beginning as a true believer in the world who suddenly has the rug pulled out from under him because there’s this one thing that he truly believes in that may not be true mixed with Percy, who’s become cynical. He’s like, “I know Yetis don’t exist but I’m going to exploit the fact that people believe they do.” It felt like nice polar opposites of two different kinds of characters who find each other.
Q: Are you concerned at offending religious groups. Some people may see the stones as the Ten Commandments or other religious doctrine that is based on faith.
Kirkpatrick: We actually were a little worried about that early on because it was always the law stones—I guess they can kind of be viewed as Ten Commandments-type laws. We used to have it where the Yetis would quote (sayings on the stones) and it did sound a little too much like Bible verse so (we dropped that). We never set out to attack religion because that wasn’t the point. It really was about laws that aren’t allowed to be questioned. What solidified it for (co-writer) Clare Sera and me, was seeing an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” where he went to Singapore. He said, “This place is amazing. It’s beautiful. It’s clean. It has a thriving middle class. Education is free. Healthcare is free. There is no crime. There’s one rule: Don’t question the government. So, you get all of this but the price is liberty and freedom. The government gets to do whatever they want.” So, there’s no crime because they cut off the hands of criminals who steal things. So, the Stonekeeper is more a (dictator) than the Pope. The (Yetis) just made laws to protect a world.
Originally in the script, we had a bunch of laws and we toned it down because we weren’t trying to lambast anyone’s religion. What we were trying to set up was a set of rules that you’re just not allowed to question. These weren’t so much things that told you how to live your life as the idea of it’s easier this way. Yes, we are making fun of early creation myths. There are some old myths that the world sat on the backs of turtles or elephants that carried us across the sky—all the stuff that early astrology is based on. While we were making this, we saw Meechee is the Galileo of her village.
Believe it or not, “Smallfoot” is playing well (in sneak previews) with evangelical groups because the (overriding) message is how important the truth is and that we need to come together and be more inclusive and not fear the “other.” That feels like the right message for our time. The idea was for it be unabashedly idealistic.