Talking About Zootopia

Disney copy.

(shhhhhpoilers)                                                             erm

Right off the bat, let’s begin with: I loved Zootopia. Just as I love pretty much every Disney movie. The characters are excellent, the part with the lemmings (I think they were lemmings?) was just the best thing, the animation was Disney, the world they created was fascinating, the music was really good! Jumbo Pop Hustle is EXACTLY the song that needed to be playing during those couple of scenes. I love when that happens!

With all of that said, it’s time to pick it apart a bit. I like to try to be fully present when watching a movie, so that I can understand both why I’m enjoying (or not enjoying) it, and so that when it’s over I can prolong the entertainment by chewing over the parts that stood out for whatever reason. I think as a consumer of entertainment, it’s a good idea to learn how to enjoy something while also acknowledging its flaws. And sometimes you can borrow someone else’s lens that’s clearer than yours, and usually that means your favourite things are going to reveal themselves to be even more flawed than you thought (case in point: this week with JKR. Uuuuuugh you know so much better JKR whyyyyy *cries forever*).

Sometimes it’s hard to critique your favourites, but I still think it’s important. So let’s do this.

Leading up to Zootopia’s release I read a couple of reviews like this that suggest this movie would have a big message underneath the story proper about racism, bigotry, and privilege. And while I do think this is true – the movie certainly does engage in the discussion – a couple of hard-to-ignore tidbits left me a little… disappointed? I mean, I still loved the movie and I think there’s a lot there to work with, it’s just that I think they could have done a better job with a few things.

So now full disclosure: am white person, talking about representation in a film, so, please, be aware of that. And before I say anything, this twitter thread, starting here, does it better than I can.

First problem: I love the voices/voice acting, but… they’re two white people, and this film wanted to talk about racism. Sure, Idris Elba is Chief Bogo, but that character is never central to the privilege/race/species/prey-predator discussion the way Nick and Hopps are. Tommy Chong’s in it for a minute. And as far as I can tell, the only women of colour voicing characters are Octavia Spencer as Mrs. Otterton, who is at least near the center of the predator discrimination thing, and Shakira as Gazelle who gets to say some smart stuff but, like, once. I’m pretty sure Mr. Big gets way more screen time than either of them. Ultimately: the cast should probably have been more diverse, especially where the central characters are concerned, because now you have this problem:

Yeeeeah. That’s an uncomfortable note.

What else?

Well the part about touching sheep’s wool was too much of a joke. I got what they were referencing and I was waiting for them to address it… better. Like when Hopps tells Clawhauser off about calling her “cute” – only rabbits can call other rabbits cute. But no, the wool thing was played off as more of a joke than anything. We’re meant to be amused by Hopps’s very PC horror at his actions rather than learning anything about why Nick was actually in the wrong here. And then there’s obviously the real-world implications of this:

I hope not, but people are awful and you can’t trust them to know when the movie maybe needed to not make that joke, so, yikes.

And the body shaming. I love Clawhauser, but I wish his being fat and love of doughnuts was just a part of his character, not added in for us to laugh at. And that whole nudist commune part was very bizarre was body-shamy, as any “oh no the horror nudists” scene is kind of required to be.

Also it just drew attention to the fact that they animate the animals without genitals – not that I was looking for that, it’s just that the whole scene was kind of designed to remind you that – OK you know what this discussion got weird, I’ll backtrack. I didn’t like the body shaming, especially in a movie about needing to recognize the pitfalls of privilege.

I remember frowning during the whole, “I learned very young that people would only see me as sly and shifty as a fox so I never try to be anything different” and “Oh come on there’s so much more to you than that” and “You should be a cop, that’ll fix everything” – I do believe the movie was trying. There’s some good stuff in the Nick/Hopps thing, but there’s also quite a bit missing. They could have done worse. But they could also have done better.

It’s kind of weird that Zootopia doesn’t have one group of animals that’s really heavily privileged compared to the rest of them. I mean, no, it isn’t weird at all, I understand exactly why the (mostly?) white filmmakers didn’t include one species of animal who benefits waaaay more than everyone else from their own particular privilege. Maybe that’s Zootopia 2: exploring the incredible privilege and institutional bigotry implanted by the cetacean upper class. It’s gotta be those porpoises, I bet you anything.

I tried to determine if not including one species/group that represents white people makes the film more interesting in terms of an intersectionality reading of it and I couldn’t decide. I think there are two points here: without the porpoise upper class the real-world commentary is less meaningful, and also, without the porpoise upper class the real-world commentary is more comfortable for white audiences.

That can go either way. Either white viewers of Zootopia graduate from this movie and go on to immerse themselves in readings and viewings of all sorts of media that have better, more useful, more challenging things to say than this movie does (Like Dear White People!), or they don’t. I don’t think Zootopia tells us that we’re good now, we solved racism, hooray, but I don’t really think it’s as insistent as it would (maybe) have liked to be about asking us to assess our own privileges and how we should be trying to use them responsibly.

OK, that’s that. On to something I’m slightly better-qualified to discuss:

Animals.

I hate The Wind in the Willows so much – except for the part where Toad drives a car and crashes it and goes to human court because toads aren’t allowed to drive (without a license? Or at all? I can’t remember and I hate this book too much to go and figure it out) but are for whatever reason able to be charged in human court. That part tickles me. The rest of it doesn’t.

My problem with it boils down to a group of small rodent things eating ham sandwiches on a picnic. So, what, they don’t have any pig friends? Basically: if you’re going to write a world entirely or at least mostly full of animals who live the way humans do, you should probably address the bizarreness that is the meat and dairy industries.

Or just have your animals all be inconspicuously vegan. That is the safe option.

It happened too fast for me to be sure, but I think citizens of Zootopia and surrounding lands are allowed to eat fish. So does that mean that these animals have the same convenient ethical loopholes that humans have, where if we (wrongly) consider a species “less-evolved” than us we are allowed to do whatever we want with them?

Are there Fish Rights Activists in Zootopia? Like, is there an METF instead of PETA? Do they advocate against complimentary de-lousings? Lice are animals too.

So predators don’t need to hunt anymore, and prey don’t need to use evasive measures to escape from predators. What are predators eating, then? When we say that predators evolved, does this mean they actually did scientifically evolve to no longer require essential amino fatty acids that they can only get by eating other animals who make those themselves? Do they no longer have to worry about B-12 deficiency or urinary alkalinity? Did they develop rumens so that they can digest hardy plant matter like many herbivores, or just giant ceca like horses?

I’m thinking the filmmakers didn’t wander down this line of thinking, which is what I do pretty much all the time. It’s my favourite (or most-aggravating) pastime whenever I’m entering a world of animals living like humans, from Wind in the Willows to Redwall to Chicken Little to Shark Tale. There is a scene in Shark Tale where a fish is working at a sushi restaurant chopping up fish, and he expresses his dismay that he has no customers.

What.

So, wait. Is he a carnivore fish? Because he looks like all of the other fish around, so… but, wait. Is he a murderer? Is he the Hannibal Lecter of fish? Why is no one calling the police (the police are orcas, I know they have police)? Why doesn’t this guy open his sushi joint over near the Titanic so that he’ll at least have the sharks as customers? Or is he concerned that she sharks will just eat him? But then if he understands how predation works why is he even trying to sell fish who apparently don’t eat themselves sushi?

Let’s bring the discussion back to the better movie: why is a sheep saying “Mutton chops?” How does that work? I’m trying to think of a human expression that is in any way comparable to using the concept of a slab of meat, from you, that is to be prepared and eaten by someone else. All I’ve got are dark references to the Donner Party or other notorious examples of real-life cannibalism, or calling someone a “baby-eater,” or, maybe, if you’re going out somewhere big predators are, referring to yourself as dinner? Maybe? But those all make sense in their contexts. “Mutton chops” is used like “Crap.” I don’t get it.

Speaking of which, Hopps uses the expression, “Cheese and crackers.” What cheese? I know they’re all mammals, so technically, that cheese she’s talking about could be any variation of weird. But let’s be real, we’re talking about cows. I didn’t notice any cattle, so… maybe Zootopia 2 is actually going to be a hardboiled investigation into where all of those pregnant wives of heartbreakingly-concerned bulls have disappeared to.

And maybe the predators are eating soylent that is actually blended veal/dried up mama cow and only the unlikely team-up of Officers Hopps and Wilde can crack the case!

Yeah. Family friendly AF.

The point is, humans do bizarre things that require harsher scrutiny, both in how we treat other humans, how we represent all types of people, well or irresponsibly, and what we do to other animals. I don’t know that I expect Zootopia to be the – or even a – definitive voice in forcing its audience to think twice about our thoughts and actions, but I did expect a little more than what I got.

But I loved this movie.

Let me get back to that for just a second.

DUKE WEASELTON. And they pronounce it “wesselton” and he’s like “It’s weasletown” oh that was the greatest. And he has Meowana already and I’m jealous, I am so excited that this year has two Disney animated features coming out.

And that’s all. 🙂

 

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2 comments

  1. […] Once upon a time we wrote a post about Brave in which we wondered what went wrong with the story, but ultimately decided that we’d rather talk about the movie we got than the movie that might have been. But some of the behind-the-scenes stuff for Zootopia made us want to talk about the movie we might have gotten instead. Also, erm already did the other thing. […]

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