“Abominable” Film Elevates Empathy

Still image from Abominable

Image credit: Universal/Pearl

I admit it — although my childhood is now far behind me, I can’t resist going to a kids’ movie every once in awhile if it seems to offer something unique. This certainly turned out to be the case with Abominable, a gorgeously rendered collaboration between Hollywood-based DreamWorks Animation and Shanghai-based Pearl Studio. The storyline revolves around a yeti who is snatched from his remote Himalayan homeland by a private collector to be exploited for science and entertainment; we actually see his confinement through his eyes at the beginning of the film. He soon escapes into the streets of Shanghai, where he meets three kids — Yi, Peng, and Jin — who embark on a quest to help him evade his captors and return safely to Everest, the mountain after which they name him. The journey they take together ends up being a psychological as well as a geographical one for each of them.

Is the plot predictable? Mostly. Is Everest anthropomorphized for maximum appeal to children? Very much so. Is there some facile humor? For sure. Is this the first animated yeti-meets-human movie? No. (Missing Link came out earlier this year, and Smallfoot was released last year, so this seems to be a trendy theme.) Given all that, does this film still justify the ticket price? Absolutely. Why? Because in addition to the impossibly adorable protagonist, uplifting tone, and stunningly vivid Chinese landscapes never before captured in a Hollywood animated release, this movie offers something that few others of its kind do in portraying how the characters — both human and nonhuman — interact. As I walked out of the theater, it struck me that the central character of the film isn’t necessarily Everest or even Yi, the teenage girl who first rescues him, but is empathy itself.

Obviously, this is by no means the first film ever to depict symbiotic interactions between a person and a creature, or between people experiencing shared circumstances, but it is relatively rare to see those kinds of interactions transpiring so consistently and frequently, unfolding in a way that demonstrates a keen understanding of what the other is experiencing.

One of the first examples we see is when Yi discovers Everest hiding on her building’s rooftop. In the midst of grappling with her initial shock that this mysterious being could suddenly pop into her life, she manages to quickly discern that he is fearful and injured. Earlier scenes in the film show Yi dashing around in a perpetually harried state, taking on every odd job she can find to earn enough money for a trip she had planned to take with her recently deceased father. Her grief, and the trip she works so hard to save up for, occupy her attention to the exclusion of virtually all else. However, Everest’s compromised condition immediately tugs at her heartstrings and sends her dipping into her precious savings, heading off to the nearest pharmacy, and buying medical supplies to treat his wounds. Without giving anything away, we see that later in the film, he repays her kindness in a manner that is very personal to her and how she copes with her grief.

Peng and Jin, the two boys who accompany Yi and Everest, show a distinct lack of maturity and concern for the needs of others early on, but they soon learn not only to bond with Everest, but also to better understand Yi and how to support her. For her part, Yi discovers a blind spot in her own empathy and resolves to address it. We also see empathetic behavior surface from another character in the film from whom we would not have expected it.

In addition to the interactions between the named characters, I was pleasantly surprised to see empathy demonstrated toward even incidental characters in the environment. In one scene, when Yi’s travel companions pull some fish out of the water to play with them, she insists that the fish be put back in. The three children also repeatedly experience awe and reverence for the beauty of their surroundings as they progress deeper into the natural world.

Although the film doesn’t score perfectly on the animal welfare front (it might have come closer if Yi’s grandmother’s legendary dumplings had been stuffed with vegetables instead of pork), it does more than any recent film I’ve seen to highlight empathy toward one’s fellow human beings, animals, and the environment alike. Particularly in this day and age, when there is so much that divides people and nations, and so much environmental destruction, the cultivation of empathy in children is imperative. In addition to the unprecedented frequency of school shootings and intensity of bullying in recent years that show clear and disturbing evidence of an empathy gap among young people, a University of Michigan study found that empathy among U.S. college students declined by about 40% between 1979 and 2009.

One of the most useful tools to develop empathy, among other components of emotional intelligence, is humane education. The Academy of Prosocial Learning provides this definition of humane education: “Humane education encourages cognitive, affective, and behavioral growth through personal development of critical thinking, problem solving, perspective-taking, and empathy as it relates to people, animals, the planet, and the intersections among them. Education taught through the lens of humane pedagogy supports more than knowledge acquisition; it allows learners to process personal values and choose prosocial behaviors aligned with those values.”

A variety of organizations worldwide — including HEART, where I now work — advance humane education in schools and an array of other settings. Many of these groups are members of the Humane Education Coalition, an international alliance of 126 education-oriented organizations in 27 countries on 5 continents working in the animal protection, human rights, and environmental conservation sectors. Many animal shelters, sanctuaries, and rescue organizations also offer humane education as part of their programming; the HEART Network provides free teaching tools for these groups.

I’m proud to be part of the humane education movement, and am grateful to the Abominable team for reaching beyond entertainment value to highlight the rewards of going the extra mile to support others on their journey, wherever it may take them.


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