Director talks about Pearl Studio and Dreamworks’ upcoming animated yeti movie ‘Abominable’
Getting it right
Published: Sep 23, 2019 07:48 PM

Promotional material for Abominable Photo: Courtesy of Pearl Studio

The legendary Yeti may prefer cold weather, but it's very hot now around the world as the fuzzy cute creature is set to be the star of the upcoming animated film Abominable. Co-produced by the Shanghai-based Pearl Studio and DreamWorks in Hollywood, the film is set to open in the US on Friday and in the Chinese mainland on October 1, China's National Day. 

"It is really about having a dream, keeping going and not giving up so quickly," the film's director and writer Jill Culton told the Global Times on Sunday.  

The film follows Yi, a young girl voiced by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. star Chloe Bennet, as she helps a yeti make his way home to Mount Qomolangma (known in the West as Mount Everest) with her friends. 

Family film 

"It is a movie for all ages about connection and disconnection," Culton said.

"In the beginning, she disconnected with her family, but in the end, she reconnects with her family in a different way." 

Grieving a recent loss in her family, Yi packs her trusty violin and vows to help return Everest, the yeti's nickname, to his home thousands of miles away. 

"It is a strong story and a universal one that you can watch in any culture and you will feel related to," Culton noted. 

"This connection and disconnection can be related in the whole world. Characters like these kids, town boy, tough kid and socialized Jin [Yi's friend]… it is exciting everywhere." 

Set in modern China, the animation will also feature the country's picturesque scenery from East China's Shanghai all the way to the Himalayas including famous places such as Thousand Island Lake and the Leshan Buddha Statue.  

"We love the idea of setting it in China and having it focus on traditional family," said Culton, who has worked in the animation industry on a number of well-known films over the past two decades such as Toy Story (1995), A Bug's Life (1998) and Shrek Forever After (2010). 

"The hard part is to get the details right so that Chinese audiences can watch the movie and think this is made in China. Obviously, that is very important. You can't get China or Chinese characters wrong." 

From test screenings and pre-screenings in China and abroad, the movie has received positive word of mouth. The film currently has a 7.5/10 on IMDb and an 81 on Rotten Tomatoes as well as a dozen of positive reviews on Chinese media review site Douban. 

Ever since the success of the 1998 Disney animated film Mulan, Hollywood has been no stranger to telling stories about ancient China. 

"Everyone is happy about Mulan, but if all movies were done in the past like that, I feel the chances of creating a stereotype of old China would increase," she noted. 

"The fact is that setting it in the modern Chinese city of Shanghai, which is just like any other cities, is great… I love that we get to set these kids in modern China."

Chinese elements 

"China is beautiful. I love showing these landscapes that no one [outside of China] knows exists. We didn't put on the Great Wall on purpose because the world knows about that one or the Terracotta Warriors," Culton explained. 

Instead, they choose a more organic way to decide which places to include as they developed the story. According to Culton, she taped a map of China to a wall and traced a path going from Shanghai all the way to the Himalayas. 

"Following a logical path, then you come upon Thousand Island Lake, Yellow Mountain and it's exciting to see the Yangtze River going through all the way."

Making sure everything in China is portrayed accurately is no easy task, especially when making a film for Chinese audiences. The 90-second trailer for the new live-action Mulan film starring actress Liu Yifei caused a stir on overseas social media platforms and China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo with errors such as moving the story from the north to the south and shifting the time period to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) instead of the Northern Dynasties (386-581). 

"Honestly, it is a goal for all studios [to get things right.] We have such a great resource and partnership with Pearl Studio," the director said, noting that they would often communicate with the Chinese Pearl Studio about these elements. 

The sweet voice of Chinese-American actress Chloe Bennet has also piqued audience interest in China, where she has a considerable fan base. 

"She is great. Nothing is strange to her, she is perfect for the role," Todd Wilderman, film's co-director, told the Global Times. 

"She knows the character so well and she improvised a lot at moments. She would say her lines, but she could always add something just to add to her character and just make herself specific and memorable."