Saturday, April 16, 2016

Zootopia

Kumbayopolis ("You've Got to Be Carefully Taught")
or
The Silence of the Sheeple

I have to confess that I've delayed and delayed seeing Zootopia for awhile because whenever I've gone, there have only been four seats left in the theater and it was usually half-filled with...children. And children are...sticky.

And...they're under-educated.

This one, from Disney, has to be for children, right? After all, why should adults be taught a simplified lesson about prejudice—they practice it every day. They've become experts.

So, Zootopia isn't The Lion King, with its inherent tribalism, this is a satire, along the lines of "Animal Farm," where we get to see our foibles and predilections grafted onto beasts (like they wanted or needed them) with a "Can't we all just get along" message, and forgetting that the animal kingdom is, in fact, "red in tooth and claw"—for the simple reason that the subjects get hungry every now and again and they have no viable economic system, not even in the trafficking of pelts.

Through a quick introduction via school play (written and performed by young bunny Judy Hopps—voiced as a child by Della Saba) we learn the history of this cartoon-world where animals evolved into a productive world of potential, out of the savagery that once was. And just as they have risen above such blood-thirsty territoriality (except for those poor unicorns that seen to be absent), so, too, can we have a whole new small world (after all) where even she, a humble bunny, might realize her dream of becoming a police officer and help those in need and do good in the animal world. Even if there never has been a bunny police officer before because...you know, bunnies are cute...oh, sorry, only bunnies can use the "c" word around each other, as it's considered offensive. Or patronizing. Or...well, don't do it.

Judy's train-ride to The Big City is beautifully animated
and feels like an opportunity for an "I Want" song.

Anyway, despite the ministrations of her parents (Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake) to stay in BunnyBurrow (population: steadily increasing) and be a carrot farmer like everybody else,* she goes to the Mammalian Police Academy where she trains (in a sequence equal parts The Silence of the Lambs and Full Metal Jacket), excels against all odds, and graduates with full honors to be sent to the City Central Police Department at Zootopia.

But graduating with honors doesn't make things easy: Judy is looked down upon—she IS pretty short—and just because she's made it that far doesn't mean she can hack it out on the street. Even if she's given a chance. For instance, her first day on the job, when the Chief (Idris Elba) hands out assignments on the hot "14 Missing Mammals" case, she gets assigned work as a meter-maid. 

A meter-maid.

But, plucky rarebit that she is, she makes the most of the job, setting a record for number of traffic-tickets given out before noon and, despite her own prejudices about the type of animal, reaching out to help a fox (Jason Bateman) facing specism when he and his son go to get a treat at an ice cream parlor only catering elephants. Judy feels good about herself in that she's overcome her prejudice of foxes, until she finds out that the fox...is a fox, the son is an adult posing as one, and it's all an elaborate scam of major proportions becoming minor portions.

It was about then that I got a little consciously irritated with Zootopia, but let us continue...
Judy is irked by her naivete and the fox's deviousness, and so (in a display of her own deviousness) she blackmails the larcenous fox, Nick Wilde, into helping her get clues to solve the ongoing 14 Missing Mammals case. That mystery, where fourteen of Zootopia's citizenry have gone missing, will reveal itself to have ties to the prejudice theme of the story,** its ramifications extending throughout the strata of the society, even to the political structure, of Zootopia. Here's a movie about prejudice that even The Trumpster might like, as it warns about a government trying to enforce PC sensibilities through social engineering. At least, that is what will be cherry-picked to focus on.
Me, I'll cherry-pick other things. That underlying plot-point seems a bit odd, because the movie wants to warn the kiddo's away from treating people based solely on their own individual fears, while also reinforcing those prejudices, and creating new ones by making the true villain of the piece be an agenda-laden least likely suspect.
Nick and Judy attend a mole-wedding with echoes of The Godfather
It's animated little heart is thumping cartoonishly in the right place, but its message is a little messy, compared to what is presented, and made light of, in the visuals. If anything, Zootopia, is one of the most specist places in this or any other dimension. Take, for example, the structure of Zootopia—it's trains have sections catering to different sized animals and nobody blinks—the trains have separate entrances/exits for giraffes and mice, and, yes, it's practical, but, on the other hand, it smacks of...well, would they actually be called "Jim Crow" laws in a world of mammals?

And the neighborhoods of Zootopia are even more segregated than they are in our time and place. The mice have a tiny-town that the larger animals (if they're allowed in) galumph through like Godzilla with gerbil trails of overpasses and travel-tubes. Again, it's practical given the size considerations, but in this Kumbayopolis with the "why can't we all just git along, little doggie" philosophy, it's a cartoon art-work done in mixed messages—the words say "don't treat mammals differently" while the pictures are pointing out just how different everything is.

And, leapin' lizards, that's just the mammals, nothing is made of any fish (although Judy's train passes by "FishTown") or reptiles, who must certainly cry "fowl" over their lot in this mammalian babel. Fish would certainly be considered "special needs" in this environment. Prejudice is rife in this place, but it is ignored as long as everybody keeps to their sector and causes a problem. It's the same passive-aggressive racism that is in our world—out of sight, out of mind and not my world/not my problem. We look after our own.


This is a cartoon, I shouldn't be thinking this stuff. And the movie talks and talks and talks about treating everybody the same, while the visuals put a lie to it. What the movie is concerned about is "the outliers," the predators, who would inspire fear in the "prey" animals and fear inspires prejudice in the herd. And Zootopia is all about herd instinct. And that's the thing about prejudice. It is born of "the tribe," "the herd," "the posse," and "the 'hood." It's "us" against "them" and drawing boundaries between the two—houses, fences, walls. Prejudice disappears when it's taken down to the singular, because at that point, it is neither reason or excuse. It's just one on one and at that point, the only excuses are ourselves and of our own making. It takes strength to admit that maybe your problems might not be in the stars, the fates or other people, but, just like Hamlet, in yourself. 



A sequence in a secret "holding area" has a strong "Silence of the Lambs" vibe
(while reminding one of an after-hours "Petco")
Tribalism creates prejudice. But, alone, the individual is weak. One of the things that beats my prejudice is commuting. Think of it, all those individuals, all in their own vehicles with one goal in mind. 99.9% of the time they get there, without any mis-hap that impedes the progress of the whole. That is an amazing work of the collective, and most of the time it works, with nary any communication between the participants. It's that goal that gets us places, creates cities and communities, gets things done. We are capable of making great things, even if it's a cartoon, and we all brings individual gifts to make those things a reality.

That's what I think, any way...but I'm prejudiced.




* My aptitude tests said I had a good career ahead of me in forestry.
** Not unlike Silence of the Lambs, again, which wraps its girl-power agenda in a story about a particularly grisly serial killer, who targets women solely, and showing in all extremes, the pervasiveness of sexism.

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