Alan Young passed away on may 19, 2016. To many, he was the lead farmer who could communicate with talking horses on Mr. Ed. To others, he was the perennial voice of Scrooge McDuck in Ducktales, the irascible richest duck in the world who led the way for one hundred episodes, one theatrical film, a number of classic and modern shorts, and even in the Nintendo reboot of the Capcom game. Young’s passing was memorialized by many of those who worked with him in TV, film, and gaming, yet in terms of the animation community at large, both creators and critics were mostly silent. It was a widely mute, seemingly moot passing: a death of the lead of what could arguably be the most important, game-changing cartoon in the last twenty-five years. Yet it’s representative of the general malaise, it seems, of the pop cultural response and respect to Disney’s 1980s-1990s animated output, which we could call The Disney Afternoon*.
I mention the Disney Afternoon for a reason. The kinds of cartoons that Disney produced – from the two cutsey-yet-complex starters The Wuzzles and The Adventures of Gummi Bears, to the TV show versions of Aladdin and The Lion King – really weren’t what we think of cartoons these days, or even what we thought of cartoons back then. In our current culture, we think of cartoons in sort of broad categories: wacky, silly, and childish; action and (super)heroic; adult and poignant; adult and absurd. Disney’s cartoons, however much they leaned into any of those categories, were anything but. At their core, the Disney Afternoon lineup were driven by adventure, specifically by strong, specific, and non-human characters who sought items, emblems, villains, and icons across multiple locales that thrived with an unique locality and ecology all its own. They were truly their own thing: the cuddly Gummi Bears with their thriving, complex society; the talented-yet-lazy ursine pilot with a surrogate son and a fussy-yet-determined boss; the team of rodents who actively sought to help others as they struggled to help themselves. Even as the quality of the shows varied throughout the years, the core nature of these shows thrived with exaggerated characters who were never-the-less grounded with real emotions, in worlds that only touched upon what could be possible in their unique, respective universes.
There’s been a lot of shock and surprise over Zootopia’s runaway success, the only original animated Disney film to gross over a billion dollars globally since Frozen, and it’s been admittedly a bit frustrating to see how people both misinterpret the movie and/or downplay its proven success. I’ve seen a lot of explanations and theories that I’ve disagree with (the “night-howlers as crack” being particularly insidious), but what prompted me to write this was this fairly dismissive piece. Mr. Spiegel is a fine writer, but the impression I get is that instead of praising Zootopia’s success and offering a credible theory as to why it’s been a global box-office draw, he dismisses the billion-dollar revenue as a new normal, a “non-event.” Which is… pretty disingenuous. As of this point, only Marvel properties have hit the billion dollar mark on their own, as well as a handful of Disney properties (give or take a Minions, which success is couched more in its universality and less in its quality). Not only has Zootopia resonated with audiences across the world, it has incredible rave reviews; yet, at the same time, those reviewers, along with Spiegel, seem flabbergasted to place the film’s success in any context. Spiegel mentions how Zootopia lacks any real Disney World or Disneyland presence, which mainly speaks to Disney’s surprise that the film did so well, not to the “perplexing” nature of the film not gaining much cultural permeation (although I would argue it has, particularly on social media).
Spiegel’s confusion is understandable. The creators and directors of Zootopia often cite Robin Hood as the example in which the film draws its inspiration, and no one could argue that. Yet I feel like Zootopia also draws a tremendous amount of inspiration from The Disney Afternoon, shows often staring talking animals of a various sort in vibrant environments, shows that were also surprisingly deep and complex and meaningful in small ways. And these shows also lack cultural permanence as well. They are rarely showcased at Disney World or Disneyland. They are not quoted on social media or often gif’d or cited as inspiration by many of today’s current batch of animators (I have yet to see an interview with Byron Howard or Rich Moore that brought up TaleSpin as an inspiration, a show that might have well have taken place in 1920-Zootopia.) These are shows that are regularly taken down from Youtube and, until recently, only had (semi-incomplete) DVD releases. Zootopia’s lack of cultural permanence mimics that of the Disney Afternoon’s cultural permanence.
Yet I would argue that Zootopia’s success is exactly due to an audience that’s craving that kind of entertainment – films and/or TV shows driven by an adventurous spirit, led by non-human characters who feel grounded, real, and relatable, all within out-sized worlds that connect to our worlds in more ways than one. The aesthetics and atmosphere of Zootopia fit squarely within the aesthetics and atmospheres of the various Disney Afternoon cartoons: they may not match one-to-one, but they all possess similar criteria: strong, flawed, non-human characters; bursts of silliness mixed with raw, poignant moments; adventure-driven stories that far surpass the need for excessive silliness or wackiness; strong, detailed visuals and proportional character designs; clever uses of pop cultural references that neither stop the flow of the story or interrupt the proceedings for the easy gag. And even though the elements of both the film and the classic animated line-up seem absent from all social cachet, I think audiences are craving it. Viewers are way more open to the kind of entertainment they can find solace in as nerd spaces open up: Steven Universe and My Little Pony and the myriad of superhero films have expanded fanbases considerably. Back in the 90s, small but dedicated fans wanted to live in Gummi Glen, Saint Canard, or Cape Suzette**. Today’s audiences can add Zootopia to that list.
I believe this is what Dreamworks attempted to do in the 2000s. As the less-respected studio began netting large scale success with Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon (another movie that seemed to have legs, financially), the studio sought to expand their visual worlds and rich characterizations onto the small screen. For a little while, it was a success, with Penguins of Madagascar a solid hit for Nickelodeon, which could be categorized as a wackier version of Rescue Rangers. Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness was a solid follow-up, and Dreamworks followed that up with the Dragons series and Monsters vs. Aliens. But it became clear that Nickelodeon interference, combined with the limitations of the TV CGI landscape, deeply held things back. Nick never established a full Dreamworks block (Dragons went to CN, which promptly burned off the show, which was egregiously boring anyway). Kung Fu Panda, potentially closer to Darkwing Duck’s sensibility (a few writers wrote for both shows!), squandered its potential by leaning way too hard on its lead’s silliness instead of adequately building up its cast and its Valley of Peace locale. Monsters Vs. Aliens just wasn’t good. Given the deal between Dreamworks and Netflix soon after, Nick basically decided to cut its loses and moved on. (And no, the Dreamworks shows on Netflix have not quite matched the aesthetics of the Disney Afternoon.)
I’m not even sure it would have mattered. Dreamworks’ shows have yet to capture cultural permeation either. Except for perhaps Shrek memes, not a single show, either one Netflix or Nickelodeon, seems particularly discussed anywhere, despite the accepted fact that Dreamworks’ television decision is apparently still financially viable. All Hail King Julian has gotten the occasional note in the media, and most recently, Voltron has gotten the social landscape talking. All Hail King Julian sort of resembles Marsupilami, in that it’s focused on the antics of forest-based critters, but with bursts of cultural/social commentary that’s extremely hit or miss. (It actually functions better the rare times it focuses on its characters and pushes them in unique, new, personal directions, but it’s unfortunately pretty rare). And Volton, despite its high quality, doesn’t adhere to any of the Disney Afternoon aesthetics. The other various Netflix Dreamworks shows: Puss in Boots, Turbo FAST, Dragons (which moved from CN a few years ago), arguably do adhere to those aesthetics, but vary in quality and lacks cultural permeation. The former point really smothers up the latter.
It’s that point, which leaves Dreamworks’ programs scattered, random, and unregulated, that seems to allow Disney the opportunity to return to the Disney Afternoon glory. Not only is Disney rebooting Ducktales, but they also are working on TV shows based on Tangled and Big Hero 6. The latter two shows are human based, but, as they are based on some of Disney’s more successful animated films, they most resemble the 90s television takes on The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. I also don’t think it’s no coincidence that Ducktales, Rescue Rangers, and TaleSpin were recently released on iTunes, in their entirety (except for one lone Ducktales episode). In addition, there’s the new Darkwing Duck comic that’s comic happening. In mostly all those cases, these shows and announcements lack cultural permeation, but it would be a grave mistake to assume that means they lack an audience or a fanbase. Zootopia and its success is not an outlier, or an excuse to toss aside the significance of a global billion dollar draw. It’s an opportunity to examine the very content and context of Zootopia itself, and realize that the world is craving a very specific type of cartoon, one that died out so many years ago.
* to clarify, many of the early cartoons within the Disney Afternoon lineup were originally Saturday morning network-syndicated cartoons, before they were re-packaged as an after-school lineup in the 90s.
** the stylistic nature of the Disney Afternoon show could be a bit more malleable – Darkwing Duck and Bonkers were “wackier” than Ducktales, which itself was looser than TaleSpin – but even in all those cases, fully-realized characters and fully-realized worlds were still firmly established.
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.