Many people weren’t quite expecting the depths and intrinsic social commentary within this film. Zootopia, Disney’s 55th animated film, stars a young, idealistic bunny named Judy Hopps who moves to the large-scaled city of Zootopia to become the world’s first (furst?) bunny police officer. She learns that’s not as easy as she thinks, getting caught up in a city-wided conspiracy with a con artist fox named Nick Wilde. The two of them form an endearing buddy-cop team that’s both exciting and endearing; critics cite 48 Hours or Lethal Weapon as a clear precedent, but it’s more evocative of Robin Hood by way of In the Heat of the Night.
Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph), and co-writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, bring life and vitality to a world of anthropomorphic animals that functions in a brilliant, detailed way. Sharp facial expressions and active body movements gives every walking, talking piece of fauna a real sense of place and personality, particular the various ways in which Judy both expresses and fails to express her emotional state. The world itself comes together in a way that’s never quite been expressed before in a film like this; the opening sequence in which Judy travels by train to Zootopia is one of the most emotionally and visually unique “newcomer heading into town” montages ever put to celluloid, with contrasting landscapes (forest, savannah, tundra) butted up against each other, yet logically designed by what seems to be incredibly advances in animal science.
There’s two clear ideas here that are working together (and, at times, against) each other here, outside of the talking animal concept. The first is the actual mystery at play, and the second is the interplay of the various species and species designation at work. There’s a basic kidnapping that needs to be investigated and solved (the basics of every procedural ever), and the social context that this mystery takes place in. For the most part the movie manages to balance both those elements with a relative deftness that even the most well-known films of that caliber manage to do. On the whole, though, the actual mystery, while solid, has a bit of a wonky, beat-by-beat formula to it: Nick and Judy find a clue, then there are shenanigans, then there’s another clue. It’s normal in the scheme of procedurals since the dawn of television time, but it would have been nice to see some sort of variation on those rhythms, or at the very least more in-world exploration through the clues themselves. An interview with an injured witness comes off flatter than it should, since it takes place in an empty, desolate region that, thirty minutes earlier, was brimming with life and energy. Never hearing from the injured party again is also a disservice, but then again, its part of the procedural MO. It fits.
The plotting of the central conspiracy also fits within the nature of “big twists” that has been part of the recent batch of Disney films, from Frozen to Wreck-It Ralph to Big Hero 6. In this case, however, the mystery and the twist are tied into the film’s trenchant, specific observations about the messy, complex relationships of the various species of its world. This is usually where fellow critics slip up, often trying to find one-to-one allegorical connections between species relationships and human-racial ones. It’s a metaphor that fails in that regard because Zootopia knows and understands the levels and layers through which is citizens must work through. It’s not just about predator vs. prey: it’s about the differences of species (fox vs. bunnies, lion vs. sheep, or lamb), of the nature of power structures (and the abuse/manipulations of which), of stereotypes, of nature vs. nurture, and of intrinsic abilities and acknowledging the full comprehension of a person, based on species, classification, gender, and class.
It’s on this point where the movie shines. The two short flashbacks define how Judy and Nick function in the present day with a direct, pointed nuance that even live-action, Award-winning films completely miss (I’m looking at you, Crash). Zootopia focuses on the bunny and fox’s relationship, particularly how their pasts inform their present, not just in the specific incidents that mark them for life, but in the implications of the dialogue and visuals around them. Avoiding spoilers, it’s important to pay specific attention to how certain characters around them react and respond to their circumstances, and then how it informs them in scenes within the present day.
Zootopia’s visual palette and sound design is gorgeous: bright, vibrant backgrounds and functional landscapes fill every frame, along with an enjoyable (if not particularly distinct) score and soundtrack that really adds to the film’s atmosphere (with all due respect to Shakira, her “Try Everything” song and Gazelle character feels forced in a way that only fits within the context of the film). It’s those tiny details – the horror-tinged Cliffside facility, the lived-in, worn-out government offices, the assortment of crowd actions in a final concert scene – that makes Zootopia feel alive and personable.
Zootopia isn’t perfect. The pacing for the first hour is a bit rushed and wonky, and there’s definitive narrative shortcuts that the film uses to get from one plot point to the next. But there’s a section of the film in the middle that’s pretty much perfect, an excellent set of scenes that exposes a broken, misguided vulnerability from both Nick and Judy that reflects the real world in a way that’s rarely seen on TV or film. It’s one of the strongest, most socially relevant lessons that works for both kids and adults, with just enough self-awareness to keep the broad strokes light and entertaining. The jokes go from silly physical pratfalls for the young ones to the solid, perfectly-timed gags that adults will catch immediately (or, better yet, on the second or third viewing). Yet it’s Judy and Nick, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman respectively, who keeps the world from spinning out of control. Life is messy, and Zootopia never suggests its an easy fix, but the attempt is not only worth the effort, it’s necessary.
When I ask if there’s a “dark side” to Zootopia, I do not specifically mean if Zootopia’s hidden “demo” – the furry fandom – is too risque a market to have a passing interest towards. I suppose to a certain extent it is a valid concern – not necessarily because of the adult content which fandom is known for (both correctly and incorrectly), but because of the Disney name, and the nature of the company need to control its message and brand. Disney would indeed not want to be tied to any seedy elements of any fandom, but that goes for Star Wars, Marvel, and its Princess properties. This isn’t a company lavishly heaping praise on fan fiction sites and potential “ships.” When I ask if there’s a dark side to Zootopia, I wonder to what extent its “headier” topic, which is centered around social assumptions and the nature of stereotypes, should be discussed. It’s obvious that the film has a very strong message when it comes to racial/cultural differences, in which a society of animals struggle through species-related prejudices. The question is if the movie truly does that idea justice, and if that idea is worth discussion in a real, meaningful context – or if it’s “just a cartoon” and not worthy of that kind of discussion at all.
In a bizarre way, that argument is more “dangerous” than any sexualization of talking animals. The realm of “geekery,” a realm that has always demanded respect and validation, has developed an overt hostility and aggressiveness towards those who read too much into it. Specifically, the hostility is aimed at racial/sexual politics and discussion. One can look to the infamous “gamergate” and see how that kind of hostility can manifest itself into something ugly and uncontrollable, something that has legitimately instilled fear into anyone who dare utter its name. Deep, thorough readings into Zootopia could instill a similar hostility into its fanbase; rumor has it that there were plenty of complaints against the one sole reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes that gave it a bad rating.
Zootopia is the rare animated film to take a hard, close look at its characters: its species and its relationships and its reputations among predators and prey and ask how would these characters truly live among each other. There is a real fear that reviewers and viewers may look too much into its notable differences and try to tie them to real world races and cultural groups. (This is doable, but requires a deeper, more open-minded approach than applying a one-to-one allegory between a race and a species, which goes beyond the scope of this piece.) This, in turn, could muddle the message, making it seem like its being both progressive and stereotypical at the same time: Matt Zoller Seitz suggested as much during his review of the film.
This is kind of a big deal. 2015-2016 has been a notable year for how powerful the call for more diversity is – diversity that is complex, complicated, and multi-faceted. Scenarios like the “Oscars So White” protest and the backlash to the Ghostbusters trailer has made diversity – true diversity – an issue that has made the internet rabid. In a way, Zootopia has a small advantage in that it substitutes talking animals for people of any race, but that has the potential to complicate things further. Is the animal construct just a way to avoid really exploring the issue of “real” diversity – an issue that demands not only more diverse faces in front of the camera, but behind the scenes as well? With all due respect to the creators and animators on the film, this doesn’t seem like a movie that has a large crew of people of color.
Disney, to its credit (and as I have mentioned before) seems to be aware, at least tangentially, of this concern. The marketing for the film has been broad enough to reach across gender and racial lines, as as more and more reviews filter in, it’s clear that the film has enough cache to make people assuage their fears (somewhat). Tomorrow, I’ll be delving deeper into the film for a full on review, but as of right now it seems to both present a clear lesson about the importance of working together, but also present the small, minute ways in which biases and stereotypes can both harm and heal – specifically if those stereotypes are not stereotypes per se, but general (and specific) cultural understandings (and misunderstandings) of the various species in question. It’s deeply silly to think about, and it’s deeply silly to write about, but the film strikes the perfect tone that feels palpable to young children and discerning adults, while at the same time making it clear its criticisms of our response to social justice and racial/cultural tensions.
It’s a tough road to balance, and in the end, all this film needs to do is be entertaining – but that’s essentially what all films need to do (well, most films). Zootopia presents a deeply messy and complex world, in which stereotypes, prejudices, assumptions and deep-seeded beliefs shape the world, and that broad “diversity” perspectives and initiatives, while meaningful, still butt up against the various ways people, at the individual level, commit to their biases. This is a film that presents how those biases manifest – from questionable science to awkward confrontations to disingenuous victim support to even “microaggressions”. Such ideas aren’t looked up fondly these days, especially in a social reality that push back against so-called “social justice warriors” and “over-sensitivity” and “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” all of which have been grossly misunderstood, but intentionally and unintentionally. Discussing how the film handles all those elements is worthy of discussion in my opinion, but there’s a sect of those who wildly disagree, and they may be more hostile than any group of people whose affections for the anthropomorphic animal concept are discomforting. And worse might be those who do see those elements and grow hostile at what they perceive is a slight against their occupation or personage – which would be the most ironic thing the film could do.
Of the many things that critics and audiences alike seem to struggle with when it comes to animation, it’s how, exactly, to take in sillier, wackier depictions of cartoon characters. “Wacky” or “loony” doesn’t really sell past the attention of younger audiences, despite older audiences’ insistence that Looney Tunes were great. (There’s a long, tricky explanation of why this is, which maybe I’ll get into later). As mentioned before, animal characters also struggle to be “accepted” among older audiences as well. It makes a certain kind of sense to combine “silly” characters with “animal” characters to maximize – or try to maximize, at least – the appeal to young kids (and consequently advertisers, but we all know about that aspect all too well).
What’s clear, however, is that certain concepts that once appealed to children seem to “grow up” with them well in their adult years, regardless of the quality of the original content (the scourge of nostalgia). This has led to numerous reboots and re-imaginations and remakes, but has also contributed to the rise of the comic book movies and the powerful, vocal supporters of video games – both of which were once derided as being in the realm of children. And while still many people define adult-lovers of such concepts as “man-babies” as it were, the more “mature” approaches to these pieces of entertainment have, for lack of a better term, validated them in a way that allowed them to be discussed and considered critically and commercially – as well as fanatically and in excruciating detail. This is the full and true nature of the “fanbase” – an assortment of people who bring to a piece of entertainment a level of analysis and exploration far outside the norm.
There’s a different between fans and fanbases. Their circles intersect, but the latter tends to commit to the entertainment of their choice to a much greater degree sometimes, uncomfortably so. Anthropomorphic fans were hardly the first group to “overdo” their enjoyment of an piece of entertainment. The nature of slash, for example, was part of the Star Trek fanbase for years, while “shipping” grew more or less out from The X-Files. Everything from Harry Potter to Adventure Time to The Last Airbender to Supernatural to Hannibal had, and has, vocal, active fanbases that explore their affection through several means, like fan fiction, elaborate cosplays, conventions, and deep, detailed forums and wikis. The important thing to remember that there was a period of time that these aspects we’re pretty much hated and/or actively avoided, save for conventions (where merchandise and advertising could be seen as promotional through pandering).
The hidden truth about fanbases, though, that their affection is, for better or worse, is not only genuine, but “serious”. To a certain extent, fans generally enjoy their likes while being somewhat removed from engaging in said likes with too much depth. Fanbases are loyal and analytical, exploring every frame and detail for clues and revelations that help them better engage or understand their enjoyment. Before, that level of detail was deemed uncomfortable, as the only way to “get” in that kind of depth was through personal encounters, which could lead to some awkward moments. The internet has allowed for a more “curated” process of engagement, through Twitter, forums, Reddit AMAs, Youtube, leaks, casting releases, and so on, and while there’s a bit more “control” in the process of dealing with fans, primarily through “official” channels, it also allowed for a host of unofficial expressions, some more aggressive and risque than most. The best method now seems to be to accept that part of the fanbase without necessarily calling attention to it.
Fanbases went from derided to de facto, with studios scrambling to appeal to them (while maintaining a strong, broad, mainstream appeal) through their films, films comprised mostly of tentpole, franchise starters. (I could get into a whole thing about “geek entertainment” becoming mainstream, but that’s beyond the scope of this pieces, and already has been written about to death). This ultimately leads to a discussion about the level of “seriousness” that these franchise starter should be. Should they be deep? Dark? Gritty? Comic? Wacky? Sincere? Ironic? It’s a tough line, one that the superhero genre has been struggling with for a while, what with Marvel films’ comic-serious approach contrasting with DC film’s ultra-grim approach – not to mention the number of TV/Netflix shows that vary wildly in tones, from the violently goofy Gotham, the adventurously witty Agents of SHIELD, and the dramatic, feminist Jessica Jones. This has been a constant argument with video games, comic books, and YA adaptations as well, and it’s starting to seep into the realm of cartoons, a realm where anthropomorphic animals thrive (for obvious reasons).
As mentioned before, anthropomorphic animals have mostly have been regulated to silly, cartoon wackiness; at most, movies had the “gumption” to push it to a level of rote, generic lesson-learning. Disney has been, for the most part, the only company to take its walking, talking animals with any sense of “serious,” from the dramatic, rueful tones of Scrooge McDuck, to the thoughtful, familial observations of Darkwing Duck (family is a big theme for the company: see, The Lion King), to the serial-based, capitalism-criticizing TaleSpin, to the gleeful, easy-going camaraderie in Robin Hood. As mentioned before, each one of these pieces of entertainment varies in the “type” of anthropomorphism used, but there’s a weight to these characters that is not often utilized in other talking animal entertainment. And while Disney always had a firm foot in the silly side of this premise (see, the weird, wonky Brandy and Mr. Whiskers), they also were comfortable with letting these characters be, and act, like adults, with real adult problems, and real, adult obstacles.
With Disney embracing the “adult” aspect of anthropomorphic animals today – with its vocal, internet-based fans, and their willingness to engage in the more risque elements of fanbases – Disney has not-so subtly embraced a fanbase once considered taboo and accepted (and somewhat encouraged) their participation within it. It also, smartly, placed Zootopia in that perfect spot between silly and serious, providing the visual lunacy that cartoon animals have always embraced, while also providing the characters within this world a depth that only Disney, really, would give its talking animals. It’s playing to its past and its present, within a fanbase notoriously shunned (while also being appealing to a broader audience as well), all while maintaining that perfect tone between comic and serious. Look closely, and it sounds exactly like the conversation we’ve had over Star Trek, Star Wars, superheroes and video games in years past. “Furries” were bound to be next.
But is this one hundred percent a good thing?