The BEST: Smallfoot

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The BEST: Smallfoot
Film directed by Karey Kirkpatrick (Warner Animation Group, 2018)
Reviewed by Sara Susswein Tesler 

Summary: A parent might see the computer-animated musical comedy, Smallfoot, as another light-hearted colorful children’s movie. In fact, this film deals with many profound issues confronting the religious people today.

A fictional mountaintop Yeti (“Bigfoot”) village, removed from civilization, follows a strict code of rituals involving stones, which are passed down from generation to generation. The Yeti are happy and simpleminded creatures, showing great devotion to their leader. They abide by community laws administered by the Stonekeeper and firmly uphold their belief system, a pillar of which dictates belief in the non-existence of any world beyond their own village. Everything changes when the main character discovers a human (a “small-foot”) and is subsequently banished from the village for publicizing his blasphemy. When the villagers are confronted with proof of his claim, they are forced to confront their inherited truths and begin to doubt their received tradition. If one of the stones, i.e., their principles of faith, is false then what does it say about all the other stones?

The film dismisses religious belief. The “stones” might be compared to the Ten Commandments, words “written in stone.” The Stonekeeper serves as the religious leader (a Yeti pope or rabbi), and the daily rituals required of the Yeti represent religious law. Smallfoot depicts the popular conflict between science and faith – and science wins. 

Blind adherence to faith is portrayed as blissful ignorance, naivety and fear. Science is portrayed as curious, truth-seeking, and brave. But science only wins because Smallfoot portrays religion as a strawman. Religion in Smallfoot is fundamentalist and isolationist, so the viewer cheers the revelations of rationalism and liberalism. Not surprisingly, many religious groups criticized Smallfoot for being agenda-driven: indoctrinating its audience to the notion that religion is only about power and self-preservation. 

Where does that leave the religious viewer? The shallow portrayal of religion might ring true for those who flee religious fundamentalist communities, perhaps even some familiar to Modern Orthodox viewers. We know of such communities that scorn intellectual pursuits outside of Torah, where blind compliance with authority is commonplace. However, by bifurcating science and faith, the film misses the opportunity to present a holistic philosophy that integrates tradition and revelation with progress and rationality.

This affords Modern Orthodox parents an opportunity to articulate the values of Torah Umadda as an unapologetic embrace of both science and Torah. When the two sides conflict, which inevitably they will, we are prepared to confront the tension with the full awareness that being religious in a modern, secular world is a tough balancing act that requires thoughtfulness, constant revaluation, and appreciation for what both sides offer. 

For older children, this film can spark conversation about the values of our community and the unique position of being a person of faith in the modern world. Without a parental led discussion, this movie does challenge Orthodox thought. It demonstrates the risk of engaging uncritically with a popular-culture that denigrates and degrades religion into something that we do not want it to become for our children. Younger children will likely not pick up on the implicit anti-religious message and enjoy the film for its themes of bravery and self-discovery.

There are limitations in how far the analogy is helpful. The Stonekeeper makes it clear that the Yeti belief system was manufactured as a result of persecution (Yeti genocide), and so their worship isn’t devotional but rather self-sustaining. This does not accommodate a system which has a belief in Revelation at its center. It might even raise questions about the interplay between Jewish myth and dogma. If one is uncomfortable raising these questions, viewer discretion is advised. 

Discussion points:

  1. What are the benefits to living in an insular community? What are the risks?
  2. The Yeti live in isolation because of historical persecution; similar to the isolationist position of many Jewish groups after years of Jewish persecution. How does this self-survival tactic change the nature of our community and our interactions with the outside world? How does the Modern Orthodox community balance being a part-of and also separate from the non-Jewish world?
  3. Are we allowed to question religious statements? Is there a line that must not be crossed?
  4. What happens when science contradicts religion? How has the Orthodox community dealt with these challenges in the past (e.g., evolution) and what challenges do you see in contemporary times?
  5. The Stonekeeper sings in “Let it Lie”

Wait so, so none of those stones are true, they’re all lies
Good lies to protect our world
But they need to know the truth
Oh do they?

          Do you think a lie is justified if it holds a community together? Do all truths need to be known?

  1. Are you more sympathetic to the Stonekeeper or the protagonist in the story? Do your feelings change throughout the film?

Sara Susswein Tesler taught Tanakh at SAR High School and currently resides in Israel where she teaches young women Tanakh and Jewish Philosophy.

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

[Published April 23, 2020]

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