Thursday, June 30, 2016

Zootopia Conundrums

I was gobsmacked by the wonders of Disney's ZOOTOPIA, not only the dazzling beauty and meticulous detail of the animation, but especially the different layers of significance that can be appreciated on various levels by children and adults. For the littlest viewers (as long as they're not young enough to find the "savage" scenes too scary), you have anthropomorphic, talking animals in clothes. The messages of "you can aspire to be anything you want to be" and "don't judge individual people by group stereotypes" are accessible to all ages. Then there are deeper issues of prejudice, violence, and political corruption. There's even a podcast suggesting that the movie constitutes an animal fable about the crack cocaine epidemic:

Film Theory: Zootopia

Although this hypothesis feels plausible while the "film theory" guy is expounding it, I strongly doubt that the Disney script writers had this exact scenario in mind. Nevertheless, the movie can definitely be applied to that real-world situation, as it can to broader social problems of minorities stigmatized as inherently violent and dangerous. And the dialogue includes many lighter allusions to stereotyping and insensitivity, such as the scene where rabbit police rookie Judy Hopps explains to one of her new colleagues that bunnies sometimes call each other "cute" but don't like it when other animals use that word.

A particularly impressive touch is the way the art shows the different animal species roughly in scale with each other, instead of making them all about the same size, as in typical anthropomorphic animal cartoons. As a corollary, each size category of animal has its own buildings built to scale. In the city center of Zootopia, of course, animals of all sizes have to mingle, resulting in occasional problems of a species having to deal with architecture and furnishings of the wrong size. Also, the writers used the real-world statistic that predators outnumber prey ten to one as a vital plot element.

Some questions about this world remain unanswered: Do all animals age at the same rate regardless of species? That appears to be the case with the example of Nick Wilde, the fox. Mammals (the only animals we see, and apparently the only ones who are sapient) seem to age at a human rate. What about breeding patterns? Judy has over 200 siblings. We aren't told whether they're produced in litters (it would seem impossible for a mother rabbit to have that many offspring otherwise). The shrew bride shows up heavily pregnant soon after her wedding, hinting that rodents breed fast, as in the real world. Yet instead of a litter, she appears to have only one prospective child (as indicated in a comment from her father, Mr. Big).

I don't remember seeing any domestic-type dogs or cats, only wolves and varieties of wild felines. Maybe this omission is a deliberate result of the absence of Homo sapiens from this version of Earth. Apparently this world has never had any human inhabitants. Since dogs and cats as we know them evolved through domestication from wolves and small wildcats, it would make sense that the former don't exist where human interference in their evolution never occurred.

Most glaring, what do the predators eat? If only mammals have consciousness and intelligence, the carnivores could eat fish (as in the Redwall series, where most fish seem to be "fair game" for food), insects (as in THE LION KING), and birds. No mention of this issue appears in the movie, though, at least as it applies to present-day civilized society. Harking back to the savage past, at one point Nick Wilde challenges Judy on whether she's secretly afraid he'll eat her.

From a writer's perspective, it's interesting that the movie was originally framed in the viewpoint of Nick, the cynical, streetwise con man. That version was much darker, focusing on the restrictions predators suffered under the rule of the fearful prey-animal majority. The creators eventually realized that the story needed to be told from the viewpoint of Judy, the idealistic young rookie from the country who comes to the big city eager "to make the world a better place," convinced that all animals live together in harmony in Zootopia. As her adventures unfold, she faces the dark side of her society as well as her own latent prejudices. If the story had been told through the eyes of Nick, who already knows Zootopia isn't a pure utopia, it would have been quite different and not nearly so strong (not to mention too violent and depressing for Disney's target child audience).

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. I forgot to mention what a great example of Intimate Adventure this movie is. Nick (fox, predator) and Judy (rabbit, prey) form a tight bond across species divisions by overcoming their initial suspicion of each other.