Talking About Zootopia Again

Zootopia came out on DVD, so of course erm bought the most expensive one: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition.

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.

To summarize: originally, the movie was going to be about Nick more than Judy, and it was going to be about the central problem of the civilization: that prey, who seriously outnumber predators, force predators to wear shock collars – not because it actually makes anyone safer, but instead because it makes prey feel safer around predators.

And then you have the rather obvious consequences: predators have it rough because it is socially-sanctioned for them to be treated differently because of underlying racism speciesism.

This was a little too unpalatable for test audiences and creators alike, so they did “the same thing” by focusing on Judy instead, and making the movie about stereotypes.

As a quick aside, the taming party scene is on the DVD and is heart-wrenching. It’s not even fully animated, even though in this feature you can see the beginnings of that. They only have it in storyboards for the scene, but it’s still so awful and so sad. Zootopia really doesn’t have one of those Disney heartbreaking moments, but if they’d kept the tame collars in then this scene would definitely have joined many a list about sad animated moments.

More importantly, the audiences and the creators themselves were feeling not so great about a world in which prey animals had so much power and paranoia that they force predators to wear shock collars, and they really wanted us to love Zootopia.

Let’s talk about that.

Erm said in her review that the tolerance message was lacking because there was no real metaphor for institutionalized racism – the beginnings of it were there, sure. Police chief Bogo says incredulously to Judy, “You think I’m gonna believe a fox?” So, it’s there, sort of. We’d imagine foxes probably have a hard time dealing with police whenever they need them, if even police chiefs are cool outright not believing them. But what they ended up doing by replacing tame collars with stereotypes is replacing a metaphor about institutionalized racism with a kind of lackluster feel-good vanilla bundt cake thing about how we shouldn’t stereotype.

We love the movie. We should say it, because we do. But it really is just that. It’s kind of like I Am NOT Black And You are NOT White in that it has the conversation in a palatable way for many, but not in a particularly realistic, and therefore helpful, way.

Jonathan says it best: “It’s a beautiful sentiment. I can’t afford to be colour blind because people don’t look at me that way.”

Zootopia is similar to this beautiful sentiment of a video about stereotypes. The movie initially would have focused on Nick trying to build a getaway for predators (where, we’re assuming, they wouldn’t have to wear their collars) and not being able to get loans because no one trusts predators. At some point Judy gets involved somehow and… probably it ends with Zootopia deciding that predators don’t need to wear tame collars?

Instead, the movie focuses on Judy, who has the privilege of being a prey animal but still endures stereotypes that impede her success. If only Chief Bogo realized that Judy is NOT a bunny, and he is NOT a water buffalo!

The metaphor only stretches so far, of course, but that is basically what happens. Bogo learns that dismissing Judy early on for being a rabbit was a pretty major error, which is probably also why he takes Nick on at the end and entrusts important speed demon cases to the wonder team, because, maybe Nick is NOT a fox!

Maybe we’re being a little hard on the video, and the movie, because it’s always a good idea to remind ourselves to think about the knee-jerk reactions we and other people have to others, because they’re probably based on toxic stuff and we can do better, individually and as a society. But our approach to this sort of thing is to just do it the straightforward way: identity politics.

The tame collars would have been Zootopia engaging in identity politics. Forget that Nick is voiced by Jason Bateman (read: a white guy. We love him. His voice is perfect for this. But still), having the movie be about Nick and the uphill battle against institutionalized racism would have been so. much. better.

“But wait!” we cry. Because again, we love the movie. “Having Judy endure an internal conflict about facing her own prejudice – which ends up being not just hurtful to her friend, but actually dangerous to the entire community – is a really good message about acknowledging privilege and being careful about how you use it!”

Yes, this is true. But Judy probably was always going to have that internal conflict. And while we would have lost out on Judy making her mistakes and acknowledging them, the collars version would likely still have more and better to say on the subject, because it would be coming from the point of view of a character more seriously affected by prejudice.

Now about people wanting to love the world.

Can we not do this?

We’re all for toning down some of the angst in basically everything, but sanitizing all of the institutional racism from the plot and replacing it with a lukewarm “stereotypes are bad” message is just… not cool. We’re not Disney executives either, so, as we’re more concerned with making better movies and less with vast, uninterrupted earning potentials, we’re solidly of the opinion that if the movie had actually said something more, it would have ended up being a much better movie than it already is – and it’s already pretty great!

Let’s compare The Black Cauldron to Hunchback of Notre Dame for a minute. The filmmakers of Cauldron balked at the idea of cutting some of the scarier stuff (at least, according to Katzenberg and his remarks we found on Waking Sleeping Beauty which is still required viewing for any Disney renaissance fan) (and by the way, while googling to make sure we spelled Katzenberg right, like the third thing that’s suggested is “Jeffrey Katzenberg illuminati” so, what’s wrong with the world, please and thank you for answering) and ultimately, the film suffers, in our opinion, from being far too scary. That Hen Wen chase scene with the fricken Nazgul is NOT OK. Maybe we need to actually watch the movie again and make a case for how cleaning up some of the terrifying aspects would actually make the movie more watchable but the point is, without much of a payoff, the terror created by the horrifying villain and co is just too much.

Hunchback on the other hand has the distinction of being the movie that everyone brings up when talking about how dark and disturbing Disney movies can get. And that’s not without cause. Hunchback is like if Bambi had been raised by the man who killed his mother who was also a racist genocidal misogynistic torture-happy rapey bigoted creepy creepface. And such.

But the movie isn’t cynical. It’s not the happiest watch, but there’s a lot of triumph there nonetheless. Watch the “Sanctuary” scene and tell us that it wasn’t earned, and all that horror before and the bits still to come aren’t well suited. Our heroes save the day and save each other and somehow everyone’s OK even though Quasi just poured way too much molten something or another all over Paris streets for our logical comfort.

On the one hand, yes, things that are too upsetting should be thoughtfully considered and potentially removed from entertainment, children’s or otherwise, if you can do it without losing anything essential. On the other, as long as the upsetting stuff is worthwhile and has the necessary payoff, keep it!

Why not begin the movie with Judy and then introduce Nick and his cynicism later? Wouldn’t that rather solve the problem of the audience needing to love the world immediately? We could save the shock collar reveal for later and give Nick his full, trying-to-do-business-legally backstory and keep the taming party scene because WHY NOT? Why not make your white audience a mite bit uncomfortable and watch them leave the theatre BETTER for it?

As for sales potentials, there’s no reason that Zootopia should have been less successful if it had been made with its true message intact. It would be for kids today like Hunchback is for us now. We revisit it and marvel at how well they made a movie for us when we were kids that still speaks to us and says worthwhile things now that we’re adults. Instead, it’s a little more like Beauty and the Beast which absolutely did not commit to its supposed “looks don’t matter” overarching message.

Anyway. There will probably be sequels so maybe that we’ve established love for the world they can get to the real business of actually saying helpful things. Here’s hoping.

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