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The first teaser trailer for Zootopia is strange. It spends much of its running time explaining what the word “anthropomorphic” means, while using one of the films co-leads, a fox named Nick Wilde, to represent the narrator’s specific examples. Its oddness can be viewed through the various comments that have propped up underneath it: many of them expressed certain degrees of frustration that the trailer would spend so much time defining a word that everyone is fairly familiar with, what with the preponderance of talking animal movies out there. What did Disney think it was really doing besides telling everyone what they pretty much already knew? All of this was just a broad lesson in a generic literary term. At least the animated characters were cool-looking, right?
That’s the thing, though – this is something that Disney has always done well: play skillfully along the line between irony and sincerity. Zootopia’s teaser trailer is both ironic in its overt explanation (having visual and verbal fun with its belabored explanation) while also expressing sincerely their very specific approach to its anthropomorphic characters and its anthropomorphic world. Disney wants its viewers to know that, yes, they know you know, but also that they are doing a very specific type of anthropomorphism that, surprisingly, has not been that as often as we think. The usual approaches to talking animals consisted of: 1) only being talking “feral” animals (in that they’re designed and shaped as regular animals, but just happen to talk, like The Lion King and Bolt); 2) see 1), but with more physical human characteristics (the uses of their front paws as hands, for example) within a world of humans that “dominate” the landscape, like Rescuers or An American Tail; or 3) specifically loony, wacky characters who are constructed around a mascot or icon that’s more representative of a brand or comic world (think Looney Tunes, Madegascar, or Sonic the Hedgehog). The idea of perfect-blended human/animal characters and characteristics–the specific way that Disney is defining anthropomorphism for this film–is truly rare. (There is a fourth – a blend of human/animal characters, similar to Bojack Horseman or Cats Don’t Dance, but the former isn’t that keen on the animal nature of its characters outside of verbal or visual puns – they don’t even have tails – while the later is part of the silly, loony category.)
Think about it. Of all the pieces of entertainment that exist, nothing quite embraces that level of anthropomorphism quite like Zootopia. Kung Fu Panda only tangentially references its cast of characters as animals; same goes with Talespin and Swat Kats, and even the film’s obvious spiritual predecessor, Robin Hood. Most talking animal movies involve humans in some way (Over the Hedge) or is content with its animal characters walking on all fours (Alpha and Omega). The truth is, Zootopia is the rare movie out there that one hundred percent embraces anthropomorphism to its fullest; the closest movie to it might be Chicken Little, but – besides that movie being an inspired mess – it leans more on the loony side of things.
This was the crucial message that Disney needed to convey with its teaser; it’s arguably why the first “official” trailer involved a familiar locale – the DMV – and the type of animals – sloth – that defined the DMV’s stereotypical inefficiency to run it. Disney knew full well of the genre’s stigma, of the kind of media-based social stigma that anthropomorphic entertainment had. Yet instead of beating around the bush – using the concept as a metaphor or allegory to another well-know story, or making it particularly wacky and absurd like it’s Dreamworks’ Zoo-based citizens, Disney’s marketing team went all in, head on. It presented Zootopia as a movie about anthropomorphic animals, full stop; then it began doling out bits and pieces to encourage skeptics to get on board; a rich cast of voice artists; examples of its clean, sharp animation; strong, comic-driven trailers and a timely theme about diversity and stereotypes.
The truth is that Disney has had a tight handle on its online marketing since Wreck-It Ralph, another film that had its skeptics. That film had to push past the reputation of being “another video game movie,” a sub-genre of films that were universally disliked. Disney showcased its commitment to the concept though; they acquired the rights to a number of copyrighted video game characters, produced remarkable sharp trailers, and even made a fake-real game to accompany the film. Wreck-It Ralph is an important film to keep in mind when thinking about Zootopia; it, too, overcame a tough reputation and produced an entertaining movie that also dealt with some some heady, deep topics, including (but not limited to) overcoming one’s reputation and staking recognition in a landscape all too willing to pigeonhole people.
Wreck-It Ralph and Zootopia also both do something that something that Disney hasn’t really, truly done in a while: directly appeal to both boys and girls. As you may know by now, the company has had a number of issues regarding proper representation in its merchandising side of things, with Star Wars downplaying the role of Rey in its toys, and Marvel doing the same thing with Black Widow. It’s a complicated ordeal (The Mary Sue gets into it here, but it mostly involves Disney mostly letting toy creators buy licenses with no oversight), but the general gist of this was mainly because Disney had such success in its Princess line for girls with Tangled and, most importantly, Frozen, that it never really had the need, or desire, to be cross-gender compliant.
Yet in a way, that’s what Wreck-It Ralph, and, more definitively, Zootopia are doing. The latter in particular, with its renewed focus on Judy as the main protagonist, forced to deal with a world systematically defined by stereotypes and certain characters assigned to particular roles, is clearly opening up its appeal bracket to young women. This, subtly, also fits into how Disney has defined their “Princess” roles – strong, personality-driven women who are not defined by their status as “princesses” but are defined by who they are and their plunk, determination, and successes (not to say that Judy is a Disney Princess, but, you never know). The “talking animal” concept is inherently open to appeal to both boys and girls, at least at the social level (although it’s usually boys that merchandising companies try to appeal to, since the unfortunate truth is that even talking animal films are headed by more male characters than female ones, and Zootopia is looking to be no exception – and its looking to be the very point the film is trying to make), and Disney is carefully crafting its marketing message to make that point as clear as possible.
You know, the fact that Zootopia is even happening is somewhat of a shocker. Over the course of this week, I’m going to get into a lot of things – the marketing, the line between cartoony/serious, the more “realistic” concerns that may crop up from the film’s aftermath – but today, I want to talk about how the type of film that Disney is producing here is kind of a marvel, for a lot of reasons. I mean, it isn’t as if Disney invented the anthropomorphic animal concept, or even the anthropomorphic movie itself (check out the comments here and here, who mostly scoff at the first trailer’s explanation of what anthropomorphism). The concept has existed since the beginning of time, and depictions of them have been seen in newspapers and animation reels since their conception.
You see, the concept of the anthropomorphic animal has gotten a seriously bad rap, primarily from two main reasons. One of which is obvious to you readers out there: “furries,” the name given to online fans of anthropomorphic animals, have for some reason been aggressively dismissed or avoided, as their affection for the concept has, in some people’s eyes, has translated to a perverse obsession. The other reason, which might be less noticeable to folks, is an executive-based, internal aversion to it. The general philosophy denoted “talking animals” as the preference of only very young children; older kids preferred human entertainment because they “relate” to it better. If you look carefully, the conflation of the first part (weird adults strong affection for talking animals) with the second part (talking animals’ primary demo of young children) has only double down on the overall stigma against any real, creative engagement with anthropomorphic animals as a whole.
That conflation came to a head back in the early part of the 90s. Now, this story is somewhat tough to research, as it’s mostly hearsay, and its source was Something Awful, which, in basic terms, was the 4chan of its day. Something Awful had enough clout to more of less “define” early internet subcultures, those of which mostly kept to newsgroups and webrings and IRC chats in relatively harmless fashion. So the story of a crazed fan who was obsessed with Babs Bunny from Tiny Toons Adventures, who ended up harassing Tress MacNeill at a fan convention, was egregiously hyped up and established as a prime example of those “perverted furries” in action. This not only tainted that fandom itself for years, it also turned made the “talking animal” concept persona-non-grata. as it were, from an industry perspective.
There was also a pretty fervent crackdown on most “adult” depictions of anthropomorphic animals, particularly in the censor-heavy, family-friendly, education-mandated politics of the 90s. Sure, The Simpsons and South Park were the prime targets, but even old cartoons from the 60s and 70s were heavily edited (particularly gags that involved suicide), and shows like Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain were scrutinized to within an inch of their lives. Minerva Mink, the Marilyn-Monroe-parody bombshell, was the biggest victim, who’s obvious sexual inclinations in her first few outings were completely cut down to nil in subsequent episodes.
It’s important to understand that during this era, “shipping” and “slash” were not, in any way, “secretly” embracing by marketing teams. People who engaged in that kind of “fan fiction” were weirdos and losers, at least at that time, and the “anthro” fans were the worst of that lot. Add to it their history (by which I mean, the story of one single asshole who clearly needed help), and it’s clear that the talking animal concept was pretty much dead in the water. Not to say they didn’t still make cartoons with talking animals in them, but they were distinctly stylized and designed to be “off-putting” to say the least (Rocko’s Modern Life, Angry Beavers, Brandy and Mr. Whiskers).
In something of an ironic twist, Disney was probably the only company that was more or less okay with the talking animal concept throughout all of this. Their emphasis were more on their “Ducks” designs (Ducktales, Darkwing Duck, The Mighty Ducks, Quack Pack), but they were okay with branching out AND re-airing its past shows that showcased more nuanced portrayals of talking animals (The Wuzzles, Gummi Bears, Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, and Gargoyles, to a certain extent). Part of this was because Disney had its own stringent S&P standards, part of that was also that, as a company not so hammered by networks standards (they owned ABC but that company mostly managed itself), they could do whatever it wanted. Disney did abandon the talking animal concept not for any real social-pushback reasons, but because they wanted to produce more content based on their movie properties. (Which had its fair-share of talking animals in them, to be clear).
So, in that regard, it makes sense that Disney would be the company to release a film like Zootopia, what with its clear allusions to Robin Hood, a film that also (for lack of a better term) encouraged the anthropomorphic fandom. But it took a while for it to catch on: in fact, it took an entire social/cultural transformation on the perspective of fan/geek culture in general. Geek culture, on the whole, was regulated to mostly comics and message boards, up until Iron Man hit theaters (well, to be more specific: Blade was the catalyst, Spider-Man/X-Men were the support, Iron Man was the confirmation). That began the current wave of superhero films that, at this rate, will never end. But it also brought geek fandom to the forefront, and all of its more questionable aspects.
Yes, that includes shipping, slash, fan fiction, social media, and obsessions over franchises. Disney tried to slip into that realm with Tron, but after that failed, they just went ahead and bought Marvel and Star Wars so they could do the heavy lifting. With Pixar more or less engaging in the “award-winning” realm of animation, and Frozen and its princess-fare winning over girls, Disney Animation was free to “experiment” as it were. And that’s essentially was Wreck-It Ralph was.=: an experiment.
Think about it: Wreck-It Ralph, too, was a movie that really shouldn’t exist, what with it’s heavy video game-filled world and its abundance of video game cameos. Nor should it have been a hit, since video game movies were also mostly ignored by the entertainment business at large. But Wreck-It Ralph was not only made, it was a hit, proving that geek culture’s financial power expanded way past superheroes (we’ll see how far when Halo, Assassin’s Creed, and Warcraft are released). Disney, to a certain extent, has always knew this, but never really had to chance to push it too much (the naughts were a tough decade for the company, financially). Considering that “anthropomorphic animals” were always something it had in its back pocket, it makes a certain amount of sense that they’d try to pursue it again.
It was Dreamworks, strangely enough, that most likely triggered Disney to greenlight Zootopia. Similarly to how Blade/Spider-Man/X-Men triggered the superhero glut, Dreamworks’ Madagascar/Kung Fu Panda films quietly created an opening for anthropomorphic animal films to make a roaring comeback. Both films were financial hits (the latter, the more critical darling), but the more casual response to the films, particularly the more mature discussion around Kung Fu Panda itself, probably sewed the seeds for Zootopia to come to fruition. In this example, Madagascar would be the Blade, Kung Fu Panda, the Spider-Man. If early word of mouth and reviews are to be believed, than Zootopia will be the anthropomorphic equivalent of Iron Man. (Also, note: the sheer number of animated movies coming out this year starring talking animals of some sort. This cannot be a coincidence.)
Even then, it took some convincing. Apparently it took some convincing for Disney to approve Zootopia, the main holdout being John Lassater himself. This would make sense, since Lassater would have been around during the time of the Babs Bunny incident. But even he couldn’t ignore the signs: the rise of geek culture, and with it the rise of internet fandom; the successes of Wreck-It Ralph and Kung Fu Panda, and the critical receptions (and acceptance) of films so steeped in fandom-loving sentiment; the power and appeal of fandom itself, and the growing attention (for good and for ill) of the anthropomorphic concept, the thing that Disney itself has more or less defined, and is getting back to defining. Tomorrow I’ll discuss how Disney’s marketing managed to control the dialogue and win over skeptics, and how it’s easing its way back into the anthropomorphic market.
5. All Hail King Julian – “Crimson and Clover”
All Hail King Julian attempting to mine observational commentary on the relationship between science and religion was a colossal failure, but that didn’t make the entire show from falling apart. In fact, it had a better (if not perfect) handle on more grounded topics, like the ridiculousness of fashion trends, or the absurdity of capitalism at its most callous. It’s difficult to cull that commentary out of something so wildly wacky, though; but character work is another matter.
What makes “Crimson and Clover” such a surprise is how it managed to explore and deepen the silly, but solid, relationship between two wacked-out characters: the nonsensical King Julian and his loose-cannon bodyguard, Clover. Crimson, Clover’s sister, arrives and hits it off with Julian (leading to a not-at-all subtle, off-camera sexcapade), whom Clover suspects is using for nefarious purposes. In a clever use of a narrative twist, Crimson and Julian’s relationship IS genuine (Julian’s unbounded energy matches Crimson’s constant need for entertainment), up until the the latter’s fear for commitment comes through. Sure, it ends with a cliche “men hate commitment!” climax, but the episode manages to delve into some real truths about its characters, from the broken bond between Crimson and Clover themselves, and the clear, friends-only (as in, non-loving) connection between Clover and Julian themselves. It’s the only episode with that level of emotion in the entire run so far, but it’s note-worthy.
4. The Mr. Peabody and Sherman Show – “Peabody’s Parents/Galileo”
Bet you didn’t expect this! Well, honestly, neither did I. The Mr. Peabody and Sherman Show, Netflix’s “updated” take on the original segment from Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, hardly had much of a marketing push, and to be clear it’s not really that great show. But it is fascinating, primarily how it establishes itself: as a late-night talk show with an assortment of insane characters, variety show bits, and mid-show shenanigans. It’s inspired, for sure, if not always effective, but it works better than it has any right to, especially if you factor in how it both matches and improves on the original show’s animation style.
“Peabody’s Parents/Galileo” takes all that into consideration with rich episode of visual niftiness and narrative intuitiveness. The normally confident Mr. Peabody becomes flustered when his parents – two regular, non-talking dogs – come to visit, their generic barks interpreted as a series of forceful, embarrassing comments. The seemingly “flat” visuals, culled from Ward’s original designs, get some delightfully clever upgrades, like a 360-camera shot around Mr. Peabody as the audience laughs at him, and some John K.-esque expressions as the normally-composed canine professor goes crazy. It’s funny and inventive, with a bit of character-study to boot. The entire show doesn’t match that level of sharpness, but it’s definitely an episode that showcases it at its full potential.
3. Gravity Falls – “Not What He Seems”
It’ll be sad to see this show go, but Gravity Falls has been such a funny, inviting show that, in its own way, going out on its second season feels like the right choice. Part of me is disappointing – for as great as this show is, it never really managed to reach its full potential (a lot of side characters never got past “cliched comic figure” and about forty percent of the episodes, while fun to watch, are mostly irrelevant). Still, nothing will take away from Alex Hirsch’s signature, influential show.
“Not What He Seems” is probably the show at its best, in which a shifty Grunkle Stan finally comes “clean” after a season and a half of secrecy. The full explanation of his actions occur in “A Tale of Two Stans,” but “Not What He Seems” has the smart-mouth senior citizen kicking ass and taking names (particularly in a fantastic animation fight sequence in a gravity-shifting interrogation room) as he desperately tries to convince his wards – Mabel in particular – that his behavior is all for a truly important reason. Stan’s sketchy antics all season are put to the test against genuine, familial trust, and viewers are the winners.
2. Steven Universe – “The Test”
I know this is going to turn some heads but hear me out. Steven Universe has been a revelation, not just in its massive, universe-expanding world-building, but in its exploration of gender/sexual identity and relationships. Choosing a “best” episode of Steven Universe is like choosing a “best” slice of pizza from a whole – it depends on the a host of personal reasons and really, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Still, I tend to be less interested in the overall storyline and more interested in the small, individual explorations of coping with new, unidentified feelings (Peridot’s story has been a highlight.)
So, yes, “Jail Break,” “Sworn to the Sword,” and “Cry For Help” are excellent, but “The Test” felt truly transitional, the moment the show acknowledged a lot of rich, bubbling tensions to the surface. Steven is sent on a mission by his Gem guardians only to realize it was a can’t-fail farce. Upset, he manages to sneak a view of the Gems discussing their actions, which dovetails into a honest, complex admission of their utter cluelessness on how to handle someone like Steven. These Gems are complete novices to raising a half-Gem, half-human kid, let alone the full concept of love itself, with Amethyst admitting in full honesty how terrible they are. Parenting is hard, a complicated act made all the more confusing with aliens involved – which Steven realizes when he plays into their farce in order to lift their spirits. It’s just a perfect moment, which, in its own way, leads to more trust, more missions, and more epicness.
1. The Amazing World of Gumball – “The Egg”
I’ve been singing my praises of The Amazing World of Gumball for ages now, as its pure, audacious animation, it’s pin-point humor, and its surprising forays into genuine emotional/social commentary are quite frankly some of the best narrative/visual choices on TV today. It takes its cues from The Simpsons and South Park, but channels them through its own unique, insane visions, unafraid to be cartoon-y and wacky, while thoroughly exploratory on its central family, lower-class living, the absurdity of suburbia, the inane school politics, the artifice of TV cliches, and so-on. It can do anything, which tends to clutter other shows, but Gumball has been, for the most part, on point.
“The Egg” is essentially everything I mentioned above distilled into one 11-minute episode of hilarity and pathos. Gumball can be as sad, depressive, and as dark as any other “Golden Age of TV” show can be, but not only does it keep one sure foot in the realm of positivity, it actively pushes back against those depressive forces. Nicole’s desperate acts to showcase her family as perfect to the eyes of a snooty mother named Felicity is immediately crushed by said mother’s pure, direct, vitriolic read of Nicole’s darkly sad life. The thing is, Felicity isn’t wrong, but instead of wallowing in the sad truth of questionable life choices, Nicole turns into a dragon and eats her. It’s pure cartoon aesthetics but representative of the family’s (and the show’s) refusal to reflect in regret, especially on the backs of one’s family. In other words, “Fuck that sad sack noise.” Add to it some genuinely great jokes and a sweet, if kind-of screwed up, connection between Anais and William, and you have a great episode that manages to say so much in so little a timeframe.