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What Is ‘Smallfoot’ Saying About Faith and Science?

Warner Bros.

Smallfoot is an entertaining and fun animated musical. A story about a community of Himalayan Yetis whose world is rocked when they encounter a mythical “smallfoot” (human), the film is full of the sort of goofy, Looney Tunes-esque physical humor that kids love, as well as clever jokes and Important Themes that keep parents engaged. But like many ostensibly “safe” kids movie today, Smallfoot contains subtle (and not so subtle) messages that discerning Christian families should sift through together.

Frozen, for example, is a classic case of a popular kids movie whose signature anthem (“Let it Go!”) perpetuates anti-authority, expressive individualism (“No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free!”). Such messages are so familiar in children’s entertainment, and pop culture generally, that we hardly recognize them as problematic. Smallfoot is not Frozen, and it has different values and ideas—about faith, science, authority, and power (among others)—but the dynamic is similar. It’s a family film whose endearing qualities might mask some of its troubling ideas. 

Tearing Down ‘Old Ideas’

Smallfoot doesn’t hide the fact that religion is on its mind. The film follows a community of yetis/bigfoots who live in a blissfully insular mountain community above the clouds. They live according a community rule written on stones, kept and interpreted by their spiritual leader, the Stonekeeper (voiced by Common), who literally wears the law/stones in a papal-type vestment. The yetis don’t question the authority or logic of the stones. When someone does ask a question, the Stonekeeper (who feels like a mix of Moses and the pope) repeats the community’s mantra to just “push the questions down.” Don’t question. Just believe. The only thing more dangerous than fear, according to the Stonekeeper, is curiosity.

One of the stones insists there is no such thing as “smallfoot.” So when a young yeti named Migo (Channing Tatum) stumbles on a smallfoot/human—a hilarious TV personality named Percy (James Corden)—and shows him to his fellow yetis, the community is thrown into chaos. The Stonekeeper’s authority and his whole system are undermined.

“If one stone is wrong, then others could be as well,” one yeti says, voicing an argument that is suspiciously similar to liberal claims that any seeming inconsistency or scientifically implausible thing in the Bible means the whole thing is up for grabs.

‘If one stone is wrong, then others could be as well,’ says one yeti, voicing an argument that is suspiciously similar to liberal claims that any seeming inconsistency or scientifically implausible thing in the Bible means the whole thing is up for grabs.

And so the film sets up its prevailing conflict: between faith (driven by fear) and science (driven by curiosity and commitment to truth). The heroes of Smallfoot are the young yetis who dare to question everything. Migo is allied with the Stonekeeper’s daughter Meechee (Zendaya), who leads an underground group called the Smallfoot Evidentiary Society. This empiricist group aims to prove the truth of smallfoot’s existence even if it means the stones are proven to be outmoded myths.

“It’s not just about tearing down old ideas,” one member of the group declares. “It’s about finding new ones.”

Simplistic Binary

Don’t be afraid of truth and new ideas, the film tells its young viewers, even if those new ideas require moving past the old ones. “Don’t leave any stone unturned,” Zendaya sings. “Be the seeker of the truth.” Of course there is merit to this message, especially in our increasingly post-truth age. Curiosity, questioning, and seeking after the truth are good things, and sometimes they do lead us to re-evaluate what we previously believed.

Smallfoot joins films like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (among many others) in showing how seeking truth can be disruptive and dangerous, but ultimately freeing. These films also show how safe, utopian communities, insulated from the dangers outside (whether in different people or different ideas), never work if they are sustained by deception and fear-based control.

It’s true—and instructive to Christian communities—that isolationist, insular approaches to self-preservation often backfire. When a yeti is told by his elders from a young age that smallfoots don’t exist, but then he actually meets and befriends a smallfoot, we can understand why he would never trust the authority of his elders again. The same dynamic is at play for some ex-evangelicals today who grew up in sheltered communities. When they experience “new ideas” that contradict what they were told in their youth (maybe they become close friends with a gay person, or find that the theory of evolution seems reasonable), it’s easy to see why they might be tempted to throw out the “old ideas” of their childhood faith. This is why the Stonekeeper’s anti-intellectual, black-and-white approach (suppress all questioning and just believe the stones!) is such a bad and vulnerable expression of faith, and one the film is right to critique.

It’s true—and instructive to Christian communities—that isolationist, insular approaches to self-preservation often backfire.

But the film’s stereotyping of religion, as basically a man-made sham, is problematic. And its simplistic binary between faith and science dangerously obscures the more nuanced reality.

Most Christian communities I know—the healthiest ones, at least—don’t wield Scripture in the weaponized, fear-based way the Stonekeeper wields his stones in Smallfoot. Most of them actually encourage education, science, the pursuit of knowledge, and don’t see any as a threat to faith. Many Christians are as devoted to the “old ideas” of the Bible, classical literature, and philosophy as they are committed to weighing the merits of “new ideas” in science and contemporary thought, and they see the relationship between the two in terms of mutual enhancement rather than irreconcilable conflict.

Many conservative, Bible-believing, devout Christians see knowledge and science in terms of awe, wonder, and worship. But Smallfoot sees these things mostly in terms of power.

Is Knowledge Just About Power?

Questions lead to knowledge,” a member of the SES says in Smallfoot. “And knowledge is power!”

Indeed, the prevailing dynamics of this film—its understanding of faith, science, facts, deception—are all about power.

In the film, faith (the Stonekeeper and his sacred stones) is just Gramscian hegemony: powerful men using lies and arbitrary rituals to maintain the status quo. In the song “Let It Lie,” Stonekeeper (Common) raps about “good lies to protect our world,” telling Migo that his pursuit of truth is naive: “Do you wanna prevent our own annihilation? / Then our only goal should be to control the flow of information.”

This sort of faith is about fear and control, suppressing knowledge in order to preserve power. And thus the flipside is also about power. Knowledge, curiosity, facts, discovery—these are framed in the film as tools of empowerment. Taking down the man. Breaking free from systems of control. Putting power in new hands. Getting woke.

“You already woke the village, son,” Migo’s dad (Danny DeVito) tells him when the dominos of authority start to fall. “Now make sure they stay awake.”

The film’s obsession with power is certainly of a piece with the 2018 zeitgeist, where gender, race, politics, class, even the NFL, are partisan, bitter battlefields over power. To our shame, many evangelicals have indeed become more known for our desperate grip on power than our Christ-like, gospel-shaped lives. And grievously, science, knowledge, and “facts” have also become pawns in the great power battles of our time.

Smallfoot mirrors this dysfunctional world and sadly encourages the next generation to follow suit. It shrinks knowledge into a power play wherein we get woke and the old order gets gets exposed.

Smallfoot shrinks knowledge into a power play wherein we get woke and the old order gets gets exposed.

Yes, there is freedom in truth, but it should be a constructive freedom—a humble freedom that leads us to worship God, not to gloat in our own enlightenment. When Jesus said “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32), he was talking about the truth of himself. Knowing him. The Proverbs are clear that knowledge and wisdom begin with our devotion to God. Truth is freeing when we find it in relationship with God, not in opposition to him.

Kids need to know that the self-oriented freedom of knowledge in Smallfoot is reductive. Knowledge as merely self-empowerment—just like Elsa’s “no rules for me!” empowerment in Frozen—is actually constricting. A more expansive, truly freeing knowledge is that which humbles us, reminds us of our limitations, and points us to the God who holds together the whole of truth in a world we only know in part.

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