Yetis may prefer cold weather, but they’re very hot in Hollywood right now. In the past year, animated films like Smallfoot (about a group of talking yetis who discover humans are real) and this spring’s Missing Link (about a sasquatch on the hunt for his yeti relatives) have taken a deep dive into the mythology of everyone’s favorite fuzzy mountain cryptid. Now, DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio are getting in on the snow monster game with the upcoming Abominable, centering on — you guessed it! — yet another yeti.
But Abominable (in theaters Sept. 27) takes the yeti myth and transforms it into something new. EW has an exclusive first look at images from the film, which follows Shanghai teenager Yi (voiced by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. star Chloe Bennet) as she discovers an errant yeti on the roof of her apartment building. Grieving a recent loss in her family, she packs her trusty violin and makes a vow to get this creature — whom she nicknames Everest — back to his own family in the Himalayas, even if it means trekking thousands of miles.
Pixar veteran and Open Season director Jill Culton wrote and directs the film, with Todd Wilderman serving as co-director. As Culton tells EW, her work on Abominable started with the simple assignment to pitch a movie about a yeti, and it was up to her to find a take that felt fresh. “I got the golden ticket for a director, which is that they wanted a yeti movie, and they gave me a blank canvas,” she says with a laugh.
So Culton set out to make a yeti movie that felt different, starting with a new kind of fluffy hero. For one, Everest has the ability to manipulate nature, from shifting the weather to accelerating plant growth. He also doesn’t sing, dance, or talk; instead, he communicates the way a wild animal does, with noises and facial expressions. Culton and character designer Nico Marlet drew inspiration for Everest from big, fluffy dogs and how they can communicate with their owners without a word.
“We didn’t want this to just be a typical yeti or bigfoot where they’re walking on two legs like a man in a suit,” Culton explains. “We wanted him to be able to walk on twos, but mostly walk on fours, and for him to be able to do things like a roll up in a giant ball like a snowball.”
Yi is joined on her journey by her two neighbors in Shanghai: the basketball-obsessed Peng (voiced by Albert Tsai) and the self-obsessed Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor, who, fittingly enough, is the grandson of mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, one of the first two men to reach the summit of Mount Everest back in 1953). During their quest to take Everest home, they’re pursued by a wealthy adventurer (Eddie Izzard) and a scheming zoologist (Sarah Paulson), both of whom are desperate to capture the yeti and prove his existence.
Culton says it was important to her and the other filmmakers to cast Asian actors in Asian roles, and the team at DreamWorks worked closely with animators and artists at the Shanghai-based Pearl Studio to make sure the film’s Chinese setting rang true.
“It’s just about getting to that authentic place,” she says. “Just as an example, we set-dressed the entire city, and then we got the feedback that there are no metal trash cans in China. So we had to go back through every scene and change the trash cans to rubber.”
And as Yi and Everest’s trek takes them from the skyscrapers of Shanghai to the towering Leshan Buddha and the snowy Himalayas, Culton promises the film delivers a yeti-sized helping of action, adventure, and emotion.
“From a female filmmaker standpoint, I think it’s always difficult when you pitch an emotional movie,” Culton says. “Like, I always had to take away the word ‘magic’ because if a woman pitches a magical yeti story with a girl who plays the violin, it instantly seemingly skews young. But this movie, I had to keep pitching the vision. I mean, it gets big at the end of this movie. It gets dangerous, it gets scary, the visuals are over the top. It is not an easy movie, and it deals with hard subject matters as well. I don’t want these movies to just be sheer entertainment, where people leave the theater and they forget about it. I work so many years on these movies that they have to mean something.”