Jen Gerson: I'm taking Bigfoot Family as seriously as it deserves
I got drunk and watched the film causing the latest embarrassing controversy in Alberta so you don't have to
Let me start by saying that I really, deeply, resent how often living in Alberta makes me want to drink. One of the biggest "controversies" to spring from my home province this week involved our energy "war room" — which I have already roundly mocked — starting a petition against Netflix for featuring an anti-oil animated children's movie called Bigfoot Family.
Confronted with this very, very serious situation, I opted for the most responsible journalistic approach available to me. I invited over a good friend, made pizza, opened a lovely bottle of Zenato Ripassa Valpolicella Superiore, and proceeded to drunkenly live-tweet the film.
It is now Thursday afternoon, and as my heartburn has receded, I feel fully prepared to deal with my thoughts on the movie in a more formal format — just as long as that format includes a touch of the hair of the dog that bit me slipped into my tea.
So let's begin.
Bigfoot Family is some kind of sequel about a research scientist who turns himself into Bigfoot, foils the plots of Big Pharma, and then settles with his wife, child, pet bear, and a few trash pandas in a suburban housing tract in a nameless city somewhere in America. That was all mostly covered off in a first film about these characters that I will not be bothering to watch. Bigfoot, whose human name I do not remember at all, finds himself at the beginning of this film a B-List celebrity who wants to use his 15-minutes of fame to do something good for the world, rather than merely cash in on product endorsements. In this sentimental state, he receives a plea for help from two environmental activists dressed in bear suits who ask him to visit an oil extraction project in Alaska in order to draw attention to the presumed evils of the X-Trakt corporation. X-Trakt's claims to have invented a clean and technologically advanced form of oil extraction. The environmentalists are skeptical.
So Bigfoot abandons his newly re-formed family, packs a selfie stick and a cellphone, and heads to Alaska to raise awareness about the project.
This is where we encounter our first mask-off moment in the film. Bigfoot is an unintentional parody of every fading celebrity who parachutes into an oilsite to "raise awareness" about the evils of the industry. Like all such celebrities, Bigfoot is not a neutral observer of these projects; he has a background in neither oil, nor environmental best practice. He is just a well intentioned and famous human hybrid who is dumped into a technologically and sociologically complicated scenario and offered one-sided perspective of a Big Evil Oil Company. He is there to leverage his low-level celebrity to drum up sympathy for the environmental Furries. That’s it. That’s all he has to offer.
A better film would recognize a degree of self-satire here, but Bigfoot Family is not a better film.
So eventually Bigfoot Dad just breaks into a secure oil facility and goes missing, prompting his family (and pets) to pile into their camper van and head to Alaska to save him. Once they arrive, they get stuck in the mud; mom hikes into the protestor's camp, leaving Bigfoot's superpower-enabled kid alone in the backcountry in the middle of a ghost town, with no way to get out or communicate a need for help.
Mom goes missing. X-Trakt shows up and begins to chase down the child on ATVs while trying to shoot him with tranquilizer darts. The oil goons then herd the child off a cliff, leaving him to die.
I am aggressively drinking my tea right now. Can you hear me drinking my tea?
Anyway, more things happen. I don’t know, there’s a rampaging NIMBY moose in this movie. A wolf leads the Bigfoot kid to the oil extraction site; kid tries to convince the wolf to become a vegetarian. The X-Trakt's CEO reveals the depth of his true villainy by — and I shit you not — explaining that he's descended of Texas oil men, donning a Stetson hat, gaudy ring, and a belt buckle, and beginning to speak in a Texan accent. I mean, Texas should be infinitely more pissed off about Bigfoot Family than Alberta.
Then the CEO tries to murder this entire family by throwing them down an abandoned mine shaft and blowing the whole project up with a bomb called "Big Daddy" that will flood the entire Alaskan Valley with oil. The child defuses that bomb at the last minute, so CEO dude tries to blow it up again with a secondary "fracking" bomb. Bigfoot catches that one, throws it in the air, which attracts a television camera crew and the whole dastardly project is revealed to the world.
I would like to devote this column to just making fun of Jason Kenney for losing his beans over such a dumb cartoon, but I'd be lying if I failed to admit that this movie annoyed me a little, too.
It's the latest in a long tradition of children’s programming on environmental themes that is overly simplistic, and, yes, uncomfortably propagandistic. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking the Smoggies, Captain Planet, The Raccoons, Fern Gully and Avatar. But what separates the beloved kids' classics of this genre from the absolute dreck is a tiny bit of nuance, self-awareness and heart. Or a solid theme song. Bigfoot Family has none of this. It's just a childishly cartoonish portrayal of an evil, murderey oil and gas company. Which is appropriate, I guess, given it's a child's cartoon. And not one that would have lasted very long at the front of the catalogue if Jason Kenney hadn't been so upset about it.
The thin-skinned over-sensitivity that this episode reveals about Alberta — a province that is not depicted in the film — is actually difficult to get a handle on. I would be tempted to call it unhealthy, even pathological, if it weren't also such a convenient deflection from this province's actual problems: a snowballing deficit, major job losses at Cenovus, and a corporate takeover of Shaw. On that note, I probably shouldn't have played along by letting myself get so distracted by this film, but hell, the wine was good and it just seemed too funny to pass up.
And to be fair, Bigfoot Family is pretty obnoxious. Not because oil and gas doesn't make for a good villain — it does — but rather because none of these shows ever has the balls to address the fact that this industry is a villain of our own creation. “Big Oil” is monstrously rich because we keep on buying what it sells; we hand over our wealth in exchange for the quality of life that petroleum has created for us.
Oil is a morally compromised product, and that compromise touches everyone who extracts and consumes it. Reducing this problem to the caricature of the black-hearted Texas oil baron is just scapegoating. It's an attempt to ameliorate the collective guilt we possess for living in car-dependent suburban tract housing with a hefty camper van that allows the family to escape to weekend adventures in the wilderness. (There’s also an unexamined European ethic around nature conservation here that’s worth unpacking sometime when I’m not so drunk.)
The real heroes are the people who are chipping away at this problem by inventing the technologies that will make us incrementally less dependent on petroleum in the long run, but that's hard to reduce to 90-minute Pixar-esque reel.
Meanwhile, the best, most honest answer to this problem I've ever received came straight from the mouth of a long-time oil man: "It’s not mother’s milk. It’s oil." No one ought to be naïve about what we do to get it, nor why the demand for oil exists in the first place.
Until both the industry and its critics come to terms with that, what we're going to get is environmental half measures, and stupid culture war potshots over children's films.
By the way, aren't conservatives supposed to be against "cancel culture"? What does the war room actually hope to accomplish, other than to draw attention to a middling film that would have faded into obscurity without these dumb ham-fisted campaigns? What plight does this mess draw attention to, other than the fact that Alberta is insecure about a child’s cartoon?
Whatever. I've already spent more time on this than the matter deserves.
Sips more tea.
I'll finish off with the same two points I left on Twitter.
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