The world of children's entertainment can, at best, teach our younger generations vital messages through affecting stories. At their worst, they can be reductive, annoying products meant to sell a product, or just barely push a message. Smallfoot is a rare creature in this landscape, as it manages to get itself caught in a sort of stasis between both of those poles. It's has an interesting message, but hampers it with bad jokes and a non-committal attitude as to what sort of movie it wants to be.
Young Migo (Channing Tatum) is having a crisis of faith, as the world he's been raised to believe in has been challenged. After seeing a human, or "small foot" in Yeti speak, he questions the truths that the local Stonekeeper (Common) instills in his village, in order to keep peace and harmony. Meanwhile, a desperate television zoologist (James Corden) needs a scoop to keep his show on the air, propelling him to fame in the process. Their worlds are about to collide, and both parties are about to get more than they yeti'd for. (Sorry.)
For the amount of vocal talent that Smallfoot packs into its cannon, there's very little spark to be had between them and the material. The jokes are not particularly imaginative, particularly when it comes to the clatch of Smallfoot believers painted as unhinged conspiracy theorists. But the character work on the whole isn't particularly impressive, leaving the audience hard pressed to remember anyone's name while they're watching the film, much less when they leave the auditorium. You know your movie is sad when Danny DeVito can very easily be written out, as his role as Migo's father is basically to spout the right emotional doubt / inspirational line the moment needs, and maybe to throw out an exclamation to spice things up.
What's particularly disheartening about Smallfoot is that we see the structure of what could have been a good, and possibly insightful, story buried under pratfalls, gags, and a pseudo-musical format that the film never fully commits to. There are themes, like the value of friendship, the power of religious dogma and those who wield it, and even integrity versus popularity that crop up throughout Smallfoot's vapid romp, and all of these could have been woven into a more affecting product that got the message its pushing across. With some focus, this could have been a pretty good discussion starter for families and their children, but instead, it's a muddled mess with flashes of insight.
Perhaps the greatest mistake that Smallfoot makes with its material is that it doesn't take itself serious enough to play out even as a simple, straightforward kids film. It's too serious to be committed to its jokes, and it's too jokey to let its more serious side flourish into a story worth telling. What's left is a barely passable animated film that preaches a message in the simplest way possible, but without much reward or depth to said message. It's the equivalent of sitting a child down, telling them flat out to be a better, more accepting person, while sitting on a Whoopie cushion in-between sentences.
Smallfoot is an animated blunder that takes what could have very easily been another Storks-style win for Warner Animation Group, and turns it into a disposable kid's movie that goes through the motions. Rather than feeling underdeveloped, it feels like this film was given a little too much attention and work to turn it into the most marketable product possible. The only thing this film has going for it is that it's being released at a time where animated options are thin. This sort of film may have passed for cutting edge in 1998, but by today's improved standards, it stands a snowballs chance in Hell at being remembered past two weeks.