By Marc Snetiker
August 14, 2018 at 09:00 AM EDT
Warner Bros. Pictures

Just call him the greatest snowman.

His name is Migo, and he’s the yeti hero of Warner Bros.’ myth-flipping animated adventure Smallfoot (out Sept. 28), which imagines a civilization of abominable snowmen and snowwomen who tell legend of the existence of creatures called “smallfoots” — a.k.a. humans — until one yeti discovers the myth to be incontrovertibly true.

Channing Tatum voices Migo, a larger-than-human-life character who let the 38-year-old channel Looney Tunes twofold: by getting looney in the recording booth and tuneful in the film’s opening number (written by director Karey Kirkpatrick and Wayne Kirkpatrick, who both wrote the 2015 Broadway musical Something Rotten!).

“I have a giant love for Looney Tunes, and when I sat down with everybody on Smallfoot, that was one of the first and biggest things that came through,” Tatum tells EW. The actor previously voiced animated characters in 2014’s The Book of Life and The LEGO Movie (and its forthcoming sequel), and each project has shown Tatum how the recording booth can be its own kind of exercise in performance. “I’m a physical person as it is and if anything, they have to bring me in [on other movies] and say, ‘Just be still for, like, a second,’” he laughs. “I miss cartoons where you get to be silly and a fool and [have] that base-level joke of falling down. It’s the first joke you probably learn as a kid, you know?” Tatum continues. “I really wanted to be in a movie that has that style and that heart to it, that’s made for kids and good enough for adults to enjoy but doesn’t have any other intention other than just to be a silly, fun, amazing time. And hopefully by the end of it, you’ll come out with a little bit of a lesson learned.”

That lesson, believe it or not, makes Smallfoot another film bearing a theme of unexpected relevance in 2018. In the movie, Migo must learn to challenge the tribal indoctrination in his life and find his own answers, icing out a long tradition of staunchly stubborn yetis along the way. It’s a fable moral that could feel connected, at least in some small part, to the zeitgeist’s current discourse on facts and fiction. Tatum summarizes the movie’s message in brief: “Get your own understanding of things. No matter who it is, [even] if it’s someone that you love, it doesn’t mean that you don’t believe them — it just means that you want to understand it for yourself in an intimate way and in a way that you can really stand behind. Because if everybody just does what the person before them says to do, we’re going to miss out on a lot of growth that could happen in directions we don’t even know it’s possible to grow in.”

But those coming to Smallfoot will not get a lecture, but an adventure of physical (and abominably physiological) comedy, with more than enough star power to stand out in the crowded cineplex this fall. Tatum is joined in the cast by James Corden (as the human smallfoot, Percy), Zendaya (as radical yeti Meechee, pictured above), Common, LeBron James, Danny DeVito, Gina Rodriguez, Yara Shahidi, Ely Henry, and Jimmy Tatro. If Tatum’s own experience is any indication, the cast’s Smallfoot experience may have opened them up, too, to Migo’s infectious albeit not-quite-universal optimism.

“When I was figuring out the layers of myself in Migo, I would go to some version of comedy and Karey would say, ‘It’s not meanness… but it’s not optimistic,’” Tatum recalls. “What I was saying wasn’t coming from this ultimately optimistic place, and I found I had to really dig down into myself. I’m 38 years old now and I have my own point of view on life, and I realized I might not have been as optimistic as I was when I was 18. Or 16.”

“Or 12,” he adds.

“Or, shoot, 30.”