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Zootopia, Day 1 – How Did Zootopia Even Happen?

Zootopia_teaser_shot

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.

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THE BEST FIVE KIDS CARTOON EPISODES OF 2015

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.

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THE WORST FIVE KIDS CARTOON EPISODES OF 2015

5. All Hail King Julian – “He Blinded Me with Science”

All Hail King Julian is a cluttered, messy show, but its commitment to its ridiculous cast and concept keeps it chugging along, even if not many of the jokes work. It struggles with any character beyond its main four (Julian, Mort, Maurice, and newcomer Clover), however, and it can be tough to support the show when an episode is working with a bad idea that it can’t completely wrap its narrative around. It’s also a show that seems to struggle with filling a full 23-minutes, with awkward pacing and clear narrative stumbling blocks.

Take for instance, “He Blinded Me with Science,” an episode that tries so hard to engage with the interplay between science and religious. Far be it from this show to attempt such a risky topic, but All Hail King Julian handles it so sloppily, especially considering how silly the show handles topics in the first place. Masikura, the religious-figure stand-in, is just not-compelling, and it’s clear from the onset the writers hardly take her proclamations with any type of seriousness – the kind of seriousness that would be needed to make this thing work. Timo isn’t a great character either but the show is a lot more sympathetic to him, and its ultimate thesis – that religion and science can indeed work together – barely holds up at the end, when it’s Timo’s scientific know-how that really saves the day, way more than Masikura’s prophetic visions. It’s the type of issue that needed some sense of nuance, and there’s no way King Julian would be equipped to handle it.

4. Dreamworks’ Dragons: Race to the Edge – “Reign of Fireworms”

Nothing is more disappointing, overall, that the TV show spinoff of the How to Train Your Dragon franchise. Cartoon Network was always sketchy, but even they had to know that Riders of Berk and Defenders of Berk were not good shows, what with barely advertising or airing them. Netflix picked up the slack with Race to the Edge, but it’s bizarre they also didn’t get the other two seasons for viewers to catch up. (Maybe they know it’s not a good show as well, as I expound upon all the problems here.)

Really, most if not all the episodes are fairly terrible and/or boring, but “Reign of Fireworms” is arguably the worst. The twins, Tuffnut and Ruffnut, are comic relief idiots as best, and at no point during all three seasons are they provided with much depth or nuance. (Which is fine if they were funny, but they’re not.) But to give them fake “real” power when they find themselves the rightful ruler of the island the riders find as their home base? It’s an exercise in patience, watching these two morons become assholes as they boss the others around and ruin everything until – surprise, surprise, they realize that they need help and shouldn’t be dicks. There’s nothing too this lesson or the episode: the twins don’t really grow from the experience, we don’t learn anything more about them, and the episode isn’t narratively or visually interesting. It’s just not good, which is representative of every issue this series has.

3. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – “Party Pooped”

My Little Pony has always, always struggled with how it handles groups outside its Mane6, and this season didn’t really do much to show it has gotten any better at it. There were some highlights in MLP’s fifth season (I think “The Cutie Map” two-parter is stronger than most people feel it is, especially when connected to “The Cutie Re-Mark” two-parter finale, and “Crusaders of the Lost Mark” is genuinely great), but some episode were just weirdly… random. Since when was Rarity such a bookish nerd?

“Party Pooped” is pretty much garbage, though. In an attempt to connect diplomatically to a new society of Yaks, the show pretty much portrays them as destructive, spoiled monsters. It’s gross to watch the ponies not only tolerate this behavior, but actively try to find a way to appease the Yaks’ nonsensical requests. Pinkie-Pie, who strangely received a heaping helping of development this season, bore the brunt of this task, and the episode opted to focus on her commitment to making people satisfied at the expense of their own health and well-being. The true lesson of the episode should have been to tell those Yaks to piss right off, but it’s yet another example of MLP’s weird self-satisfaction of being morally and knowledgeably right (and therefore superior) over everyone else.

2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – “Turtles in Time”

Has any television show had a bigger drop in quality than Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? It’s first season wasn’t great but it showed promise, but it squandered that promise with some of the laziest and dumbest episodes in a while. “Pizza Face” was a previous low point, and managed to make last year’s worst of list, but at no point did the show get better. The “April’s Farmhouse” episodes are some of the worse examples of television in a while. “The Croaking” is an awful parody of Napoleon Dynamite for some reason, and “Race of the Demon” is crappy knock-off of Christine. Arguably that latter episode would have definitely made the worst-off list this year if it wasn’t for the fact it aired in 2014 (“Pizza Face” was worse though). With its ambivalent use of “My ninja” jokes, it’s practically unwatchable. (Seriously, how did those “my ninja” jokes not get called out?)

2015 episodes were not better, and while “Meet Mondo Gecko” made a hell of a case with a terribly annoying portrayal of a teenage skateboarder weirdly cool with his horrifying transformation to a 90s-era, video game gecko mascot, “Turtles in Time” wins by ruining an intriguing premise (and, by proxy, the name of one TMNT’s best games). The 2003 version of TMNT handled Renet’s time-twisting screw-ups with an epic scope and an endearing wink; while Renet herself was annoying, it worked because she redeemed herself, especially against a truly terrifying, motivated Savanti Romero. “Turtles in Time’s” take on the story callously tosses Renet into the Turtles’ time on a whim, makes her annoying without a sense of redemption, completely makes Romero a stilted, unmotivated, weirdly-bored bad guy, and overall just tells a crappy story. (There’s a part where the Turtles ride horses into a skeleton army battle and the horses run off, scared. Then… the horse just come back.) It doesn’t lead to anything in the long term and it doesn’t really make for a good episode in and of itself. It has a potential romance between Mikey and Renet, which is shit because literally every female character is reduced to this dynamic (Donny and April, Leo and Karai, and apparently, Ralph and Mona). Instead of opening up knew avenues of storytelling, it does nothing with it, which probably why this fourth season is delving into an epic space venture. At least that’s something.

1. The Adventures of Puss and Boots – “Duchess”

I wrote here about how inessential The Adventures of Puss and Boots is. It’s kind of a strange show that didn’t even bother to cull much from its source (itself a spin-off of the mediocre Shrek franchise),  opting to focus its premise on a mysterious town that’s pretty much filled with jerks and idiots. Still, it could work if those jerks and idiots were compelling or interesting. They are not. Its biggest issue, though, is that it clearly struggled with filling a full 23 minute time frame, spending way too much time with clunky joke-telling, bad characterization, poor art direction, and, quite frankly, just bad writing.

“Duchess” exemplifies everything wrong with this show. First of all, The Duchess is voiced by Maria Bamford, a huge waste of a comedic actress and voice talent. Secondly, the episode spends an exorbitant amount of time explaining her plan in perhaps the worst, most exposition-filled scene in television history. Seriously. It’s long, it’s repetitive, and it’s bad. It’s almost shocking that they let it go. It’s not like the episode gets better from there, as the episode then pairs her up with Artephius, who is just too stupid a character to work. The two have a conflict but it’s pretty irrelevant and, once again, lasts way too long. Not a single character is compelling in anyway, and it’s not until the second half of the season do things get interesting, if not necessarily better. The season finale literally blew things up for the future, but “Duchess” was a hot mess from the past.

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