A film that falls short of making a complete and convincing narrative argument.
Smallfoot is a film that sets up great narrative potentials but in an obvious and blatant way. Failing to follow through on these established inequities—and confusion over the real source of conflict—adds to the sense that something is not quite adding up in the final mix.
Appealing character design and delightful animation balance out the slight deficiencies of story, resulting in a fun experience for family movie night—
—it’s just that the story could have been better.
Subtext on the Surface
The inhabitants of the Yeti world live by the Stones—stones they know for sure, tell the truth about their world. The film holds nothing back in portraying this motivation of Certainty a Problem. While many movies try to weave their sources of Conflict in with sleight of hand and sophistication, Smalllfoot wears its issues on its hairy sleeves.
Even to the point of wrapping an entire song around the Influence Character Issue of Investigation.
The “Wonderful Life” song sequence is a perfect example of the role the Influence Character perspective plays in a narrative. The Influence Character Throughline challenges and influences the Main Character to move beyond his personal justifications.
It’s when it’s put into song, and the players literally sing the definition of their Thematic point-of-view that it comes off as preachy. The Audience feels as if they’re being hit over the head with the message of the film.
Better to use the Co-Dynamic pair to Investigation of Appraisal and Reappraisal to show the relative value of questioning authority while making judgments—rather than coming right out and saying(singing), “looking around you is a good thing!”
Add to that the fact that this world’s problem isn’t Certainty but rather, Proaction—and the film manages to resemble a conversation with someone who is loud and proud about an argument they’re not sure they’re making and aren’t really bringing to completion.
Taking the initiative to establish a fantastical narrative to protect an entire species is an Objective Story Problem of Proaction and an Objecive Story Issue of Need. Conflict arises because some feel the need to take steps to protect their world.
Fine. That works great.
But then, the rest of the narrative should focus on the continuing adverse effects of taking preemptive action—not on when others are stuck with a false certainty and “truths” that they hold dear.
It’s not about “tamping those feelings down,” as it would be in a story driven by Certainty—one where Acceptance is the suggested route.
Conflict-driven by Proaction requires constant effort to answer each and every hypothesis or challenge with gentle Deduction—manipulating others to see the inescapable verity of their chosen path.
More about Issues of Need, rather than Issues of Permission.
A Matter of Resolve
The reason this film balances on the precipice of two incomplete narratives is the struggle to reconcile a Main Character Resolve of Steadfast.
For all intents and purposes, it appears as if Migo (Channing Tatum) the Main Character, is just as misguided as the rest of the population and needs to change.
In fact, his actual drive of Certainty—his refusal to recant what he’s seen and his ensuing banishment—is the exact point of view that needs to be held onto for the world to change—
—for Percy Patterson the human (James Corden), as Influence Character, to change from someone who preemptively takes action to save his career (just like the Yetis above) to someone who lives knowing that the audience will react favorably regardless of what he does to impress them.
A significant move from Proaction to Reaction.
The above Narrative Argument rests on this dynamic of a Steadfast Main Character Resolve and a Changed Influence Character Resolve.
What It Means to Remain Steadfast
Migo is sure of what he saw and is banished.
Later, the Stonekeeper (Common) reveals the evil Potential of the human race and Migo changes—lying to everyone that what he saw was a yak.
This is great stuff.
A steadfast character who flirts with their Solution and loses their drive? That’s sophisticated story construction.
But then where is Migo’s realignment with his Source of Drive?
When does he return to Certainty?
Migo's apology is sweet and heartfelt—but it leaves him aimless going forward.
Thankfully, his dad is there to help him reset his “true” aim, but there isn’t a sense that Migo takes back that Certainty with...certainty.
Sure, he jumps off the cliff knowing this is what he has to do—but where does it all lead? And how does it tie back into his original Issue of Work? Of being the one who bangs the gong?
How does his Certainty motivate those around him to change?
Theoretically, you don’t need to make that connection—the storyform continues to carry the meaning—but with a film that so boldly proclaims its intentions, this lack burdens the Audience with assimilating some kind of meaningful purpose on their own.
And Audiences don’t attend movies to do homework.
Balancing the Objective Story with a Relationship
Quite surprisingly, Smallfoot crafts an excellent balance between the Objective Story Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline—the balance between those around Migo, both objectively and subjectively.
The Four Throughlines of Smallfoot
The Objective Story Throughline is the perspective of the narrative that focuses on the conflict everyone experiences as a result of this motivation towards Certainty/Proaction. The dysfunction that exists in their community plants the narrative’s Objective Story Domain of Psychology; the anxiety found in generating new ideas creates an Objective Story Concern of Conceiving.
This is where the gentle (and not so gentle) attempts to manipulate the way of thinking amongst everyone creates conflict for Them. Throughlines offer audiences the opportunity to witness conflict from different points of view. The Objective Story Throughline accounts for the perspective of They.
Balancing this objective perspective is the subjective perspective of We—the perspective afforded by the Relationship Story Throughline.
To properly balance out Objective Story conflict found in the Psychology domain, the Relationship Story must focus on problematic activities, as seen in the Physics domain.
And Smallfoot happily takes this approach with the relationship between Migo and Percy.
The comedy found between two species who can’t understand one another and need to learn to communicate correctly illustrates a Relationship Story Domain of Physics and a Relationship Story Concern of Learning.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers fall into the familiar trap of setting up this great potential for the relationship—then splitting the two apart for a majority of the film.
As an audience member, it’s like finding some rare precious treasure hidden in the attic of your parents' house, only to have someone turn out the lights, leaving you fumbling through the dark trying to find your way out.
You wish you could see their relationship play out—but you’re only left with great unrealized potential.
You’re left wondering how they could have resolved their inability to communicate with one another.
Understanding What You’re Saying
A low critical rating is often the result of an incomplete, or broken, storyform. With Smallfoot’s Rotten Tomatoes rating of 75%, we see evidence of the former. The pieces for a complete argument were there—they just didn’t play out to their final and inevitable resolution.
The result is the semblance of a Cautionary Tale—a statement of how things should be, rather than a convincing argument that this works best.
A storyform codifies the narrative argument, or Premise of a story, but more importantly—a storyform helps Authors ensure the integrity and completeness of their work. It makes tangible what was previously only guessed at or assumed.
With a reliable and consistent storyform, an Author makes sure the Audience isn’t left wondering how it all fits together—or what it was all was supposed to mean.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
For those well-versed in the Dramatica theory of story, the definitive Storypoints of Smallfoot are:
- Main Character Approach of Do-er
- Main Character Mindset of Linear
- Story Driver of Action
- Story Continuum of Spacetime
- Story Outcome of Success
- Story Judgment of Good
- Objective Story Domain of Psychology
- Objective Story Concern of Conceiving
- Main Character Problem of Certainty
With those set into the Story Engine, we’re left with one choice...the Main Character Resolve.
Setting it to Steadfast gives us:
Setting it to Changed gives us:
You can see how the film bounces back and forth between the two, particularly regarding what you’re allowed, and not allowed to do, in the Yeti village (Permission). And in the implied resolution of walking down the mountain to see what happens (Reaction).
Choosing one storyform—and then clarifying the Storypoints essential to that one Premise—would have resulted in a film with greater clarity and meaning.