Dear Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick,
Karey and Wayne, the musically-talented brothers. You are Tony-nominated musicians thanks to your work on the hit broadway play, Something Rotten. It was this exact item on your collective resume that landed Karey a Directing gig when he was only brought on to write the screenplay, and what brought Wayne on board to help turn Smallfoot into a musical when it was never intended to be one. I’m sure that came as quite a surprise for you two.
You’ll notice the theme of surprise pop up a lot in this letter because Smallfoot is one giant, furry surprise.
Deep in the Himalayan mountains, an entire civilization of yetis leave in blissful ignorance. Performing menial tasks everyday to please their gods, unaware that humans “smallfoots” live right underneath their noses. Smallfoot is chock-full of hope, optimism, and courage in the face of adversity. A pillar of any good children’s animated feature. But, as the movie unravels, surprises begin to trickle in, making Smallfoot something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing--or in this case--yak clothing.
Six months into production, you two are tasked with morphing Smallfoot into a musical. “WTF”; is presumably the first and most appropriate response, given that music is the core of a musical, not something you shoehorn in at a later date. Because of this rush job, the songs in Smallfoot are pretty plain. In fact, playing “Wonderful Life”--an original song of yours in Smallfoot--next to “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana rears many similarities in pacing, build-up, and ballad-esque vocals. Pretty forgettable in other words. I mean, “Wonderful Life” isn’t even the only song in the soundtrack that features the word “wonderful’.
Remember when I mentioned the theme of surprise?
Preparing for this review, I went back and listened to the Smallfoot soundtrack on YouTube. Then I listened to a few of the songs again, because, surprise! I was straight up hooked. Upon first listen, I branded the music in Smallfoot as lazy, uninspired, and looking to capitalize on the success of Frozen. It wasn’t until I gave it another chance and learned to look past a preconceived bias that I learned to appreciate it. And guess what? I now have “Finally Free” by Niall Horran on my Spotify and it’s all your fault.
This probably brings a smile to your faces because the fact that I switched my tune (pun intended) about the music in Smallfoot is part of the larger narrative.
Another surprise, and perhaps the biggest in Smallfoot is the commentary about the fake news, highly-partisan era we live in today. I guess after Zootopia’s nods to racial tension, animated features with deeper meanings is something of a growing trend.
If any yeti has questions about their way of life, they are instructed by the Stonekeeper (yeti prophet), voice by rapper Common, to take their thoughts and push it deep down into the recesses of the mind. Those in clerical power know best and it is your duty as a civilian to listen to the powers at be, without question.
Was the topical surprise a bit forced with its delivery? Yes, but I can’t deny that it was refreshing to see something in pop culture not only fight the good fight, but actively work to bring both sides of the political spectrum together, rather than further the divide. Smallfoot using religion to accentuate this plot point just delights my atheist heart. A ballsy move, not just for a kids movie, but a mainstream release in general.
Another ballsy move--and yet another surprise--is the big midpoint twist that drastically shakes things up. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything. Now that’s a cardinal sin. It wasn’t so much the twist itself that was a surprise, it was the way it was presented. As a fucking rap. I can’t remember the last time I heard a rap in an animated film--but hey, when you have Oscar-winning rapper Common voicing one of your main characters, you better drop a beat or two.
Rapping is one thing, but revealing the most pivotal moment of the film as a musical number is bonkers. The risk of packaging up such a big moment in a song is dangerous. It’s easier for the audience to lose focus since they are trying to keep up with beats, lyrics, and sharp imagery. As musicians, you have to bank on the audience following every single word. Yet, you went for it and I have to say, it was worth it. ’Let it Lie’ by Common was the one earworm that stayed with me after leaving the theatre. Your background in broadway came into play here as you expertly managed the tempo of the scene. It was easy to follow and actually helped keep my interest in order to pay attention to what was happening.
Not an easy feat. Bravo.
Surprise after surprise, Smallfoot has gained my appreciation the more I think about it. Yes, the music is familiar the first time you hear it, probably because we as adults have a tendency to group all kids entertainment into a singular bucket. Although that is on us. After a second or third listen, it’s easier to understand why you two were nominated for a Tony. Yes, Smallfoot walks and talks like a standard animated film, but listen to the words and you discover a politically-charged message of defiance. Hell, even looking back at the sheer amount of detail that must’ve gone into animating yeti fur and snowy landscapes for almost two hours deserves some recognition.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, Niall calls my name.