You may not recognize animator Jill Culton by name or face, but odds are, her work had some impact on your childhood. With an aptitude for art and a strong imagination, Culton played crucial roles in some this generation’s of the most foundational and celebrated animated films.
Her story begins way back in 1995, when she served on the animation team for Pixar’s “Toy Story,” the groundbreaking film that revolutionized the world of cartoons forever by introducing 3D animation to the big screen. After “Toy Story,” Culton stayed with Pixar for several years, being an art director for “A Bugs Life” in 1998, a story artist for “Toy Story 2” in 1999, and taking a more-than-successful stab at co-writing “Monster’s Inc.” in 2001.
In 2003, she went over to Sony Pictures Animation, where she had her directorial debut with “Open Season” in 2006. She then served as executive producer for “Open Season 2” in 2008 before moving over to DreamWorks in 2010. Shortly thereafter, however, she went on a hiatus and created nothing. For years, vague rumors circulated about Culton working on a new project, one that would center on a girl and an abominable snowman and their epic journey to Everest. In 2016, however, it was stated that she was dropping the project, and that there were no expected future endeavors for the influential animator.
Now, three years later, with DreamWorks under the wing of Universal’s Illumination Animation, Culton’s illusive project from the turn of the decade is finally going into theaters.
“Abominable” comes out September 27th. It is the story of a girl named Yi, who comes across a captive yeti in the city and helps him escape back to his Himalayan home. It is a narrative reminiscent of the original “Free Willy,” except “Abominable” is set in an ultramodern world filled with fantasy and magic, a world that Yi and her group of friends must traverse in order to return their furry ally to his rightful habitat.
The enchanted world is the product of Culton herself, who not only wrote the screenplay for “Abominable,” but also directed it along with Todd Wilderman, a fellow animator and art director known for his visual effects work on “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and his more recent story art on DreamWorks’ “Home” and “Trolls.”
Culton was unfortunately not a direct animator on the project, but as director, she did create the vision. Actual animation was in the more than capable hands of some of DreamWorks’ most talented and experienced employees.
The 3D computer animation style of “Abominable” is similar to that of DreamWorks’ “How To Train Your Dragon” and Disney’s “Big Hero 6.” Essentially, the characters are bubbly and caricature-esque. The form may lack some of the finer details and texture seen in recent Pixar movies, but it is full of expression and makes for some very compelling landscapes. After all, when it comes to this kind of animation, the goal is not realism but rather a unique aesthetic that feels playful and evokes imagination.
For a PG rated DreamWorks movie, though, it is not really the cast, crew, or animation style that makes or breaks the project at the box office. “Abominable” is the third sasquatch-themed animated movie to come out in the past twelve months. Annapurna Pictures’ “Mission Link” and Warner Animation’s “Smallfoot” both have their similarities to “Abominable,” and although “Missing Link” touted the most impressive cast and perhaps the most innovative animation style of the three, it flopped at the box office.
With few exceptions, kids do not really care for those kinds of details in movies. This is not to say that children lack taste or do not recognize quality. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Children usually do not think about who is in the movie or who made the movie. All they really focus on is what the movie is in its finished form. As far as marketing goes, if the movie looks fun and entertaining, then they will want to see it. And if they see it and it delivers on their expectations, then they will talk about it at school and convince others to see it.
Many films have children as their target audiences, but children are not the ones writing the reviews. They don’t know who Jill Culton is even if they’ve seen all of her movies. They do not know the voice actors are in “Abominable,” even though the movie is awesomely featuring a nearly all Asian-American cast fit for its East Asian setting.
So, what is all of this saying? Unless you have children or are a child yourself, you probably weren’t planning on seeing “Abominable.” However, perhaps by knowing the background of director Jill Culton or the effort put into the film, we can be reassured by the fact that studios aren’t slacking off on animated projects just because they are meant for kids. And maybe by learning where “Abominable” comes from, you will get a jolt of nostalgia, learn to see the value in animation as an adult, and see that even if a movie is marketed to one group of people, the screen does not discriminate, and anyone has the right to go see and enjoy a movie.
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