In recent years, the notion that animated pictures are tantamount to childish humor and sugar-coated depictions of reality has begun to break down as kids’ entertainment features social commentary more and more prominently. Following the success of movies such as “Inside Out” and “Zootopia” — which present nuanced explorations of mental health and racial profiling, respectively — director Karey Kirkpatrick’s “Smallfoot” blatantly yet effectively tackles the topic of truth and its relationships with religion and stereotypes, starting a conversation on screens worldwide that few can have even with their closest friends and family.
The movie opens with a series of cave paintings and a voiceover that explain the principal beliefs of Yeti culture: First, their creation myth states that their snow-capped mountain home fell out of a giant yak’s backside; second, a designated gong-ringer must hit a metal disk every morning in order to make a magic snail carry the sun across the sky; third, all the rules that define society and the world are scrawled on special rocks kept by their leader, the Stonekeeper (Common); and finally, humans must not exist because the rocks say so. The introduction simultaneously demands comparisons between the Yetis’ religion and real-world faiths (which are most glaringly obvious in how the Stonekeeper’s rocks parallel holy books in function) and cleverly frames the rest of the film like a mathematical proof by first presenting a ridiculous belief to be later debunked by the discovery of various pieces of evidence.
Such scientific treatment of even the plot structure hints at Kirkpatrick’s answer to the controversial question that “Smallfoot” asks: Is truth found in religion or in methodical exploration of the world? While its plot twists and happy ending may be predictable, “Smallfoot” stands out with its mature commentary on the importance of questioning what is presented as repetition, a salient topic for both children and adults in this age of political cover-ups and sensational media.
The story’s protagonist is a Yeti named Migo (Channing Tatum) who lives peacefully among his kind in the snowy Himalayas until he encounters a human — a Smallfoot, as they are called in lore. However, his discovery is not taken well by his village, who are adamant that the rocks of law can never be wrong, leading to his banishment. In Migo’s quest to bring another human back to his community and prove himself right, he joins a ragtag band of other believers in Smallfoot comprised of Meechee (Zendaya), the surprisingly rebellious daughter of the Stonekeeper, Kolka (Gina Rodriguez), Gwangi (LeBron James), and Fleem (Ely Henry), the quippy coward serving as comic relief, all of whom collect clues suggesting human existence and demonstrate an affinity for more scientific ways of thinking than the rest of the Yetis.
Meanwhile, Percy (James Corden), a nature reporter in the Himalayas, is grappling with his own crisis surrounding truth: He must decide between presenting the public with honest, “boring” facts about the environment that would sink his career, and staging fake animal attacks to boost his ratings. During Migo and Percy’s first encounter, a close shot of each of their faces shows each character through the eyes of the other. From Migo’s perspective, human words sound like incomprehensible squeaking and he immediately assumes Percy has no language skills. To Percy, Migo’s excited gestures seem like threatening posturing. The comical exaggeration of their fear and misunderstanding illustrates how ridiculous it is for different races or social groups to harbor unfounded, negative assumptions about each other. The scene is a tactful addition to the film’s central argument as it clarifies the movie’s purpose as an examination of the harms of blind belief in all its manifestations rather than a critique of religion in particular.
Later, Percy’s arrival in Migo’s mountain village sets off a rapid period of enlightenment in which the Yeti population questions their sacred rocks, embraces human culture, and experiments with their environment, leading to technological developments such as the invention of an airplane. The differences between the heavily religious Yeti society at the beginning of the film and the scientifically advanced civilization near the end seems to pit religion and science against each other as polar opposites, with the former facilitating ignorance and prejudice while the latter catalyzes societal improvement. The large contrast in imagery weakens the film, with its rather one-sided portrayal of religion. The distinction between criticism of religion that fosters ignorance and commentary on religion as a general practice becomes blurred by the movie’s end.
Overall, however, Kirkpatrick deserves praise for delivering a nuanced exploration of truth and how it affects both personal perceptions and society at large, especially considering that he easily could have rehashed a trite parable about the virtues of honesty instead, like so many children’s programs do. Though Kirkpatrick is no newcomer to whimsical fantasy films, given his work on “James and the Giant Peach,” “Charlotte’s Web,” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” “Smallfoot” arguably holds more social significance than any of his previous works by bringing a controversial topic to the forefront through an accessible, playful story.
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In Defense of the Truth