COMMENTARY: Alberta takes aim at Netflix kids' movie over oil concerns. Is it overreaction?

WATCH: (March 16, 2021) Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage says it's critical the government push back against what it sees as false narratives that cast the oil and gas industry in a negative light — even when it comes from a children's movie on Netflix. Tom Vernon explains.

Is it just a fun kids’ movie about an adventure-loving family with a talking pet grizzly bear?

Or is it really a piece of cunning anti-oil propaganda, warping the minds of innocent children against Canada’s energy industry?

That’s the debate raging in Alberta this week after the Jason Kenney government set its sights on Bigfoot Family, an animated children’s movie currently popular on Netflix.

“It’s clear that they developed content designed to defame in the most vicious way possible, in the impressionable minds of kids, the largest industry in the province,” the Alberta premier complained.

The Kenney government unleashed its famous pro-oil-sands “war room” — officially the government-funded Canadian Energy Centre — to attack the film for “brainwashing” children.

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“We will not surrender the reputation of the energy industry and will continue to stand up for hundreds of thousands of jobs here in Canada,” Tom Olsen, CEO of the Canadian Energy Centre, told me.

An overreaction, you say? Many of Kenney’s critics had a good laugh as they mocked his cartoonish concerns.

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley ridiculed Kenney’s “brave stand against a child’s cartoon character” while noting the movie appeared to become more popular on Netflix after the government attacked it.

Others highlighted the rich irony of Kenney attacking a kids’ movie after earlier advocating for “free speech” on university campuses under an assault of “cancel culture.”

But watching the actual movie might make others think twice. When it comes to anti-oil rhetoric, this is one cartoon that lays it on as thick as bitumen.

The hero of the movie is Dr. Jim “Bigfoot” Harrison, a scientist genetically mutated into a sasquatch.

In Alaska, Jim and his family team up with environmental protesters to fight a big energy company — Extrakt Oil — and its plans to drill in pristine wilderness.

The villain of the piece is Extrakt Oil CEO Conor Mandrake, who plans to ignite a massive underground bomb to force oil to the surface and flood an untouched valley with deadly crude.

“Maximum impact for maximum oil!” he cackles.

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Alberta ‘war room’ says Netflix kids movie ‘Bigfoot Family’ disparages oil industry

In another scene, he tells his minions to take out the Bigfoot family with extreme prejudice.

“Make sure they don’t get out alive!” the oil tycoon orders.

It’s all too much for Olsen.

“The message of the movie is that oil companies are evil, and they will stop at nothing, including murdering children, to destroy the environment and kill all of the cute talking animals, all in the name of profit,” he told me.

“It’s all bad from start to finish. It’s mischaracterization and it’s unfair.”

Olsen’s war room is encouraging Albertans to flood Netflix with protest emails, sparking withering criticism from environmental groups.

“This is a children’s cartoon with a talking bear and a raccoon family — it’s not a documentary,” said Peter McCartney, a climate change campaigner with the Wilderness Committee, adding it’s “mind-boggling” that Alberta is spending taxpayers’ money to attack the film.

But Olsen said the movie is not just animated eye candy for kids.

“I wish we could have a pragmatic discussion about these issues, but the movie doesn’t promote that,” he said. “It’s not just a kids’ cartoon.”

But McCartney said the film carries an important message for families.

“The villain in the movie is the oil industry, and they’re also the villain in children’s lives,” he said.

“Seven million people die from the pollution that the fossil-fuel industry puts into the atmosphere every year.”

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Alberta’s critics, meanwhile, say the government’s attack on the movie actually backfired because more people ended up watching it, vaulting Bigfoot Family into Netflix’s top-10 list in Canada.

As the critics mock and ridicule Kenney, I found myself wondering what would happen if the tables were turned.

What if Fox News or some other big right-wing, pro-oil group produced a kids cartoon that portrayed environmentalists as foreign-funded extremists willing to kill oil-and-gas workers to achieve their goals?

If such a thing happened, I suspect environmental groups would be just as angry as the Kenney government is now.

But here’s a final point to ponder: Kenney’s United Conservatives are struggling in the opinion polls, badly trailing Notley’s NDP.

Kenney clearly hopes that doubling down on his support for Alberta’s oil sector will help stop the bleeding. If it doesn’t, he will have bigger troubles on his hands than Bigfoot Family.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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