By Peggy Ray
I was glad I didn’t have a child with me when I viewed a film at the American Museum of Natural History recently. It was shown on a huge screen in three-dimensions and probably pretty frightening to the small child sitting on his mother’s lap a few rows ahead of me.
Called “Tiny Giants,” it taught that in life we have enemies everywhere, predators who want to kill and eat us, as well as undeserving members of our own kind who want to steal whatever we have. Each of us is all alone in the world and must be ready to fight for survival, just as the two brave and valorous tiny giants (both male) in the film show us. I wondered, would the child watching this grow up to think “I better get together with friends to help with this,” or “Yikes. I’m going to need some guns!”
The film opens in the chipmunk’s habitat with the young male chipmunk on his own among giant oak trees in a thick forest. The only salvation for the chipmunk in this dark world is the feast of acorns the oak trees drop in the fall. The youngster must work hard to gather them to store for the winter or it will surely starve. Possible starvation is not the only threat our lonely hero must face. Predator owls and hawks swoop down on him (in 3-D) and come close to eating him at various points in the story. Besides all that, a thieving older chipmunk who doesn’t want to do the work of gathering acorns himself is raiding the stash our unsuspecting hero is patiently collecting in his storeroom.
His acorns are almost gone when our hero finally comes upon the thief and realizes that he has been robbed. A fierce battle ensues, which of course our stalwart youngster wins. Our little chipmunk proves himself to be tough enough to survive and may go on to father another generation.
The other tiny giant in the film is a grasshopper mouse, barely three inches long, who lives in a harsh, dry desert. When we meet him, he is living with his mother in a burrow. His mother hunts for food to feed her babies. Our hero, the older and most adventurous of the litter, ventures out on his own before his siblings are ready to leave the nest.
Like the chipmunk, he faces many dangers, including nearly being drowned in a dramatic flash flood. But a grasshopper mouse is a fierce predator himself: not a vegetarian like the chipmunk, this one eats scorpions. After his near drowning and successfully killing and eating a scorpion, the mouse heads back to the burrow where he was born and where his mother remains taking care of his siblings. He gets to the door of the burrow but turns away: He decides that even though it is tempting to return to the nest and be taken care of by his Mom, it is more interesting and challenging to be out in the world confronting by himself whatever dangers life might present.
That was the final lesson of the film for viewers to take home. It seemed to me like an out-of-date message of social Darwinism, and not one I’d choose for a child of the 21st Century. Our survival as a species depends now on realizing that we are not separate from other humans and from the natural world. As humans we have come this far more through cooperation and collaboration than competition and individual struggle and more “togetherness” is what we need to survive the challenges before us.