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I see two ways of looking at Smallfoot, the latest big animated movie from Warner Bros.: On the one hand, it presents caricatures of religion that, while likely intended to tweak Christianity, pack no real punch since they fail so spectacularly to capture anything approaching Biblical belief. So what’s the harm in watching something silly that ultimately reminds us we aren’t a people of superstitious and unreasonable faith?
On the other hand, can we really expect the movie’s target audience—young children—to defend their inexperienced faith against crude and, at times, mean-spirited attacks wrapped in a package of cute, fuzzy creatures?
I’m all for engaging with entertainment that causes me to rise to the challenge skepticism offers and consider afresh the reasons for the hope that is in me. I’m just not so sure my 4-year-old or 9-year-old is ready for a similar exercise.
As Smallfoot opens, a community of yetis enjoys a blissful agrarian existence on a mountainside hidden high in the Himalayas. Well, mostly blissful. A few renegade outcasts harbor doubts about the yetis’ theocratic way of life, which is based on a series of religious “laws.” Lest we miss the connection, the laws are written on small stone tablets, given by direct revelation to the village leader of each generation, known as the Stonekeeper (voiced by rapper Common). The two biggest points of heresy are whether yetis really came into existence when they “fell out of the Great Yak’s butt” (no, I’m not kidding) and whether it’s really true that there’s no such thing as the “smallfoot,” aka humans.
Cheerful village idiot Migo (a bland Channing Tatum) is the yeti faith’s biggest cheerleader, telling little yetis in a catchy tune that if they have questions or doubts about what’s written on the stones, the best thing to do is “stuff them down deep inside” until they go away. That is, until a chance accident places him squarely in a smallfoot’s path and he returns to the village and declares his discovery.
Like any good oppressor of progress, Stonekeeper demands that Migo recant. He won’t. Thus Stonekeeper banishes him for daring to contradict the religious texts of the community, no matter that Migo saw a smallfoot with his own eyes and returned with hard evidence.
As you might guess, Migo then joins forces with the science-minded outcasts, including the Stonekeeper’s daughter Meechee (Zendaya), and goes on a quest to find a smallfoot and prove that the sacred writings on the stone tablets are wrong. (Spoiler ahead.)
An adventure where Migo and his crew get to know a scheming nature documentarian (James Corden) sets up a dichotomy between two philosophical camps: the open-minded camp led by Migo and Meechee that discovers truth through engagement with nature, and the close-minded, dogmatic camp of Stonekeeper and his faithful that sees the pursuit of learning as a threat. Never does the story suggest these two approaches can be anything but exclusive. Guess which side the film’s good guys fall on? And, as we might expect, they eventually discover their religion is a product of self-serving human (excuse me, yeti) invention and not a result of divine revelation.
Let’s just say I was glad my 9-year-old wasn’t able to attend the movie with me and my 4-year-old was so bored by the heavy-handed messaging that she spent most of the movie whining for more candy.
One amusing irony I doubt the filmmakers intended: The movie does do a tremendous job illustrating what a burden man-made religion is. Stonekeeper not only enforces the laws, he wears them. In a coat made up of small tablets, he is literally “heavy-laden” with the rules he and other yetis must follow to be considered good citizens. And that is all that faith without a sacrificed Savior can ever be.
If your children are spiritually mature enough to understand why this image reflects Biblical truth and how Christianity is nothing like the unnamed yeti religion, then Smallfoot could arguably provide good post-movie ice-cream conversation. Otherwise, take this as a caveat for your young spectators.