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?
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.