Revisiting Zootopia   January 21st, 2017

“It’s called a hustle, sweetheart.”

I distracted myself from the impending presidential inauguration this week by re-watching Zootopia. I like to imagine the fantasy of having had Wilde/Hopps as a potential political ticket for this past election cycle, instead of the media-circus freak show we ended up with.

For the few people who may somehow have not heard of it, Zootopia is a fun mystery/adventure/buddy/cop movie set in an animated world of anthropomorphic animals. The plot involves a small female bunny, Judy Hopps in her quest to be the first rabbit police officer and the roadblocks she faces being taken seriously. Along the way she crosses paths with a con-artist fox Nick Wilde and the two become unexpected partners as they investigate cases of disappearing mammals in the titular metropolis of Zootopia.

Themes of bias, both conscious and unconscious, are threaded through the plot of the story. These are used as metaphors for racism and sexism, and while they are obvious they are also superbly nuanced. The nuance comes in big part due to how the narrative of the movie evolved.

There are short documentaries which explain how the plot evolved to deal with a world of different animals interacting together. One prominent backstory included all the predator animals being forced to wear shock collars to keep their baser natures in check and make the prey feel safe. That lead to a dark and dystopian world, one everyone involved on the movie realized they didn’t want to visit, so the story was changed. Because of the organic development of the story from watching how real animals interacted and imagining how they would work together in a society, a story unfolded where bias was part of the story, but not the original intent.

The fact that ideas on bias evolved naturally, let the movie feel a lot more genuine. Typically when movies use metaphors for race, they tend to be quite thin and it’s easy to see who is cast in which roles. However in Zootopia, while the commentary on bias is obvious, depending on who you asked, you would get different answers for which races or groups the predators and prey represented, and not to mention the foxes, who seem to stand alone as a class by themselves.

The film shows how at different times both Judy and Nick are victims and perpetrators of their own sets of biases. They have both been bullied and discriminated against in their past and have strived to make their way in the world, but not without their scars. There is a gag which is obvious, but appreciated, when Judy thinks herself enlightened but manages to complement Nick on how articulate he is and even misses his backhanded compliment about most people aren’t usually so non-patronizing. It’s also interesting that nobody recognizes Finnick as a separate sub-species of smaller fox instead of seeing him as a child, which is a good allusion to how many times people do not bother to understand or learn about the Other.

That said, there are some things in the movie that are problematic. For all the trouble showing stereotypes aren’t always correct, there are a few instances where mammals are very true to form. There’s the shifty Duke Weaselton, and then the timber wolves. Nick first calls them “dumb dumbs” and then their predictable proclivity for howling is exploited for a plot point. Both cases are played for laughs, but in a film telling the viewers not to judge a book by its cover, it does raise small questions.

Then there’s the alliance Nick and Judy end up making with the local crime boss. It’s also used for comedic effect, in a wonderful spoof on the Godfather films featuring an arctic shrew as Mr. Big. Judy’s genuine kindness to the mob boss’ daughter, before she even knew who she was, did make the difference in saving her life, so that is nice. Still, if the Zootopia Police Department has an internal affairs office, Nick and Judy might be called in for their relationship with a man who regularly “ices” mammals who cross him. That said, I’m not sure how effective the ZPD is. The whole case of the missing mammals really was dragging on before Judy decided to so basic detective work. It looks like the members of the police force are more used to enforcing the law then doing any actual investigations. Still, it was for the plot and a fun ride, so it’s a minor nit.

The other disappointment of the movie for me was the underuse of Benjamin Clawhauser, the rotund donut-munching cheetah cop. He works as an anti-stereotype, especially when he’s removed from his spot at the front desk because he might be frightening to visitors, when he is the least-scary predator ever. His fabulous obsession with pop star Gazelle is fun too. However, other than him sort of being an ally to Judy when she’s given the cold shoulder by the rest of the police force, he doesn’t do much. He exists to be a running (well more like slowly walking) fat joke, and that really seems like a missed opportunity.

But for those warts, Zootopia shines so bright with everything it got right. The movie has a superb and wonderful character-driven plot. It was about the characters and story first, and without strong characters which the audience could so deeply care about, a social message, no matter how lofty, wouldn’t have mattered.

There are two lovely emotional scenes, which still move me today, even after multiple viewings. They are both scenes where Nick and Judy are alone and the movie focuses on their story. The first scene is in the sky tram where Nick’s childhood trauma is revealed. The second is the scene under the bridge where Judy breaks down crying as she apologizes for hurting him. Even though it was unintended and her actions were well meaning, she realizes how she was wrong and it ways heavy on her.

In both scenes Nick uses humor, a carefully-constructed defense mechanism he’s built up over the years, to keep anyone from getting close to him. Then as the movie progresses, he’s shown slowly letting Judy inside his defenses. When Judy makes her critical mistake, the walls come up again and he shuts her out. It’s only after her tearful apology that he lets her back in, with a gentle hug then a quick pivot to a joke. It’s no surprise how much the fan-fiction community has (relation)shipped these two lovable characters, and it’s a testament to how strong and endearing the story is.

Another well-used character was the adult Gideon Grey, the formerly mean fox from Judy’s past. Gideon’s return to the story was not expected and how they played him into the story was a nice surprise. In a lesser movie, the plot would simply have had the childhood bully play his role, then never be seen again. Here the film allows Gideon to show his redemption and personal growth, as well as providing a catalyst for Judy to atone for her mistakes as he serendipitously uncovers an important plot point.

Gideon may be a simple country fox, but he is not stupid and he’s shown being insightful, even if he doesn’t use a lot of “four-dollar words.” A friend also pointed out that his use of therapy lingo, even if he’s spouting it by memorization, shows a lot to his character and backstory, in such an economical way. He has been through his own dark trials and has emerged a better and more-whole person because of that personal journey.

And if there was a character I’d love to see more of, it’s the female polar bear drill sergeant in the wonderful police academy training montage at the beginning of the film. She’s incredulous of Judy’s abilities and I loved how she kept on pointing out her failures in a series of training exercises would get her killed on the force. “Filthy toilet, you’re dead fluff-butt!” I loved those scenes and wish they’d lasted longer I also loved how the sergeant was shown being hard on the new recruits not out of any malice but to make them stronger. She doesn’t believe Judy is up to the task, but when the tiny bunny shows what she’s made of, the look of delighted surprise on the sergeant’s face is wonderful.

Zootopia holds well up to repeated viewings and as self-medication and a distraction from a crazy world, it works wonders.

This entry was posted on Saturday, January 21st, 2017 at 4:56 am and is filed under Movies and TV. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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