Thursday, June 09, 2016

"Zootopia": review

I'm not even sure where to begin in reviewing "Zootopia" which, despite being a kids' movie, is deeply, shamelessly political—by which I really mean politically correct—in outlook. But even there, the movie is either too smart or too stupid for its own good because, strangely enough, there are points at which the film takes some uncomfortably un-PC turns.

The movie, populated with anthropomorphic animals, is about an intrepid young female rabbit named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) who dreams of becoming the first rabbit police officer—the sort of job that normally goes to larger, burlier animals. Judy, a country gal and the daughter of complacency-loving carrot farmers, makes it through academy training and gets stationed in Precinct 1 of Zootopia, an animal metropolis* that is divided into twelve regions, each with its own climate and terrain suitable to certain types of animals.

Judy is wowed and maybe even a bit intimidated by the city, but she firmly believes in Zootopia's motto: "Anyone can be anything." In the era of bathroom wars and Dolezalic if-you-say-you-are-then-you-are racial constructivism, this motto is particularly topical. From the get-go, the movie conflates identity with ideals and aspirations: who you are is what you become, and what you become is who you are. When Judy sees what she thinks is a baby fennec fox that wants to become an elephant, she encouragingly tells him that he should go ahead and just become that elephant. A fox becoming an elephant isn't on the same self-transcending order as a female rabbit becoming a police officer in Zootopia, but the movie doesn't seem to care about this point. Everything is in the heedless spirit of Disney's "If you can dream it, you can do it."

Judy has a run-in with a red fox named Nick Wilde (the excellent Jason Bateman), and the movie slides smoothly into buddy-cop mode as this unlikely pair starts off as enemies who eventually become friends. (This isn't a spoiler, I hope: the preview trailer implied as much, and this sort of character arc is painfully predictable.) The two encounter a mystery: although the animals of Zootopia, predator and prey alike, have evolved to the point where they can all coexist peacefully in the city (except for one fat cheetah who loves doughnuts, we're never quite sure what normal Zootopian predators eat, since they obviously no longer eat prey animals), something is driving some of the predator animals berserk, sending them into a mauling frenzy. These same animals are going missing, and the whole thing looks more and more like a massive, sinister operation being masterminded by... someone. Judy and Nick are on the case, and the rest of the film follows the pair as they try both to solve the mystery and to resolve thorny issues in their friendship.

"Zootopia" is a fun, watchable film, but it's a shamelessly preachy issues movie, at least if you're an adult. Then again, I don't mind telling kids that the sky's the limit: when you're young, that's not a bad message to hear. Sure, why not: anyone can be anything. By the end of the movie, Judy has figured out that this motto isn't entirely true; in her voiceover narration, she acknowledges that there are limits rooted in one's inherent nature, but she goes on to say that exploring these limits with understanding and tolerance is what it's all about. Idealistic, but again, not a bad message. I just wish the message—that message and others that the movie is all too eager to convey—weren't delivered via bludgeon.

What truly bothered me, though, was the film's pious hypocrisy. On the one hand, the film is trying to preach that we shouldn't judge each other by appearances—a direct reference to racism. On the other hand, the film incessantly traffics in social and ethnic stereotypes. Tommy Chong plays a yak who is an almost quintessential stoner; the one way in which that stereotype is subverted is that the yak's memory turns out to be much better than an elephant's—or a typical pothead's. And that elephant (Gita Reddy)! The elephant is Indian (naturally), and she does yoga (naturally). But we're not done! Then there's Mr. Big (the hilarious Maurice LaMarche), a Vito Corleone-style mafia boss. That role is given to an arctic shrew who spends his screen time aping Marlon Brando's impression of a Sicilian. Mr. Big's daughter Fru Fru (Leah Latham), meanwhile, is portrayed as a typically tacky, nasal Jersey girl. The movie is a nonstop onslaught of ethnicity that often feels as if it's trying to have things both ways, preaching racial/social tolerance on the one hand while having nudge-wink fun with stereotypes on the other. I don't mind the stereotypes: it's the stereotypes plus the preaching against them that's problematic for me.

Even worse, though, is a rather dark implication. The predators, it turns out, are being unfairly targeted by someone who is deliberately driving them wild. This plays on the other animals' primal fears, for you see, Zootopia's population is over 90% prey animals. The predators, then, are a minority, and the majority prey animals have long-standing evolutionary reasons for being paranoid about this minority, which many secretly see as potentially violent. Is this starting to sound like a familiar scenario to you? It is? Good. Because, not to put too fine a point on it, but I see "Zootopia" as equating black people—that misunderstood and feared minority—with predators.

As anti-PC as I am, even I find myself offended by this equivalence. To be fair, I'm not sure the story writers thought through the implications of what they were sketching out, but it's hard to un-see the "Zootopia predators = black people" equivalence once you've seen it. Sure, the movie is at pains to insist that predators are a largely misunderstood minority, but if the story writers were looking for an analogue for black folks, couldn't they have used something other than predators to make their point?

I can see what message the movie wants to send—that's obvious enough. But because of the way the story is written, because of the various choices the writers made as they put the story together, it's not obvious that the movie is sending the right message to those in the audience who are sophisticated enough to start untangling the thematic strands and following where they lead. Far from being utopian, "Zootopia" heads into some ominous territory. I'm not sure whether to be unhappy at the movie's PC aspect, happy about the self-subverting way it gets un-PC, or confused about what the movie is actually trying to say.

Kids, of course, will catch none of this. The movie is pretty funny, and there are slyly distracting references for adults to catch as well, such as the meth-lab-style reference to "Walter and Jesse"** that's made by one of the bad guys late in the film. The voice work by all the actors is well done (JK Simmons, very much in J. Jonah Jameson mode, plays the lion mayor of Zootopia; Idris Elba is delightful as the stern-but-fair Chief Bogo, a Cape buffalo); the animation is nothing less than what we'd expect from an expensive Disney production; the story is coherent, well paced, well written, and engaging.

Overall, though, I'd consider "Zootopia" the ideological antithesis of "The Incredibles," a very un-PC film that says greatness is sometimes innate, and not everyone can be great—pretty much the diametrical opposite of "Anyone can be anything." View at your own risk.

*There are no humans in this picture, but there's plenty of human-style technology and even religion, including Hinduism and charismatic Christianity.

**In case you haven't seen "Breaking Bad," the two main characters in that series (reviewed here) were Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul).



Bratfink said...

Thanks for this! I've been enjoying Disney stuff less and less as I get older, and I really couldn't figure out why. I think you just nailed it.

Charles said...

Haven't seen this. Maybe that's why the connection between "predators" and "black people" feels a little forced to me--perhaps it makes more sense in the context of the film. This particular sentence threw me: "Sure, the movie is at pains to insist that predators are a largely misunderstood minority, but if the story writers were looking for an analogue for black folks, couldn't they have used something other than predators to make their point?" I don't get this. Predators are automatically black people, then? Couldn't it just be that prey animals are not inherently violent, while predators are? The only thing that comes to mind is that whole "super predators" thing from a while back, but it seems like the set-up could also just be explained by nature--there are, naturally, fewer predators than prey (although not at a 1-to-9 ratio), and predators are naturally more violent.

If that's what you got from the film, though, I'm guessing that there is something that doesn't quite come through in a review and would have to be seen directly.

Kevin Kim said...

There's a kind of "just trust me" aspect to writing a review—you either buy into what I'm writing or you don't. In a sense, we all have to see a given movie for ourselves to come up with our own opinions about it. A review's purpose is to convey one person's experience, interpretation, and recommendation. That's about the best I can do.

My review probably would be twice as long if I were to marshal all the evidence the film provides for the predator/black equivalence. For example, there's the bit of dialogue that occurs after Judy the rabbit has deeply offended Nick the fox by stating, during a press conference, that the reason the predators are going savage could have something to do with their biology. Incensed, Nick asks Judy whether she's afraid of him—whether she's afraid that he's going to snap at any moment and try to eat her. After all, why does she carry that can of fox repellent on her belt? Judy is taken aback by this and insists that Nick is "not like them."

"Oh, so there's a them, now?" Nick sneers.

Some version of this dialogue has probably taken place among well-meaning people in the real world, and I'd bet that Nick's "them" line is more often uttered by the African-American side than by the whiter-shade-of-pale side. So I'd chalk this up to the predator/black equivalence that the movie wants to establish.

The problem, of course, is that the analogy is inherently poisonous. The movie's premise is that, in modern times, mammals have evolved so far away from their primal roots that a return to that state of nature is almost unthinkable. But that premise is subverted by the fact that there is indeed a lingering, latent fear among the prey animals that the predators are still at least potentially savage. If, at this point, you're hearing echoes of a white fear of the violent, hypersexualized black man, then bravo. But this is precisely where the predator/black analogy breaks down: predators are indeed biologically still predators—always will be. But black folks aren't inherently hypersexualized or violent: there's a perception that they are that isn't rooted in anything like Judy's rational, biologically based surmise at her press conference. Simply put, we can justifiably argue that fear of predators is rational, given their biology, but the moment we flip this thinking back onto black people, we're engaging in the same racism the movie is ostensibly trying to combat.

The movie does eventually reveal that the cause of the predators' savagery is chemical (so Judy's biology theory is wrong), and that the chemical can affect prey animals the same way. But this reveal comes way late in the film, and by that point, we've been subjected to scenes of racism/speciesism like one in which a prey-animal mother on the subway quietly pulls her babies toward her when a big cat takes a seat next to her and her children.

So I'd say the logic of the film goes something like this:

1. The writers want to make a statement about racism.
2. They focus most of the movie on latent prejudice against predators.
3. Predators constitute a demographic minority in Zootopia—about 10% (blacks in America constitute about 13% of the population... coincidence, I'm sure).
4. Through dialogue and action, we witness moments of prejudice against this bigger, stronger, and seemingly potentially violent minority.

All of the above points to the equivalence I referred to earlier.

But maybe I was wrong in my review: maybe the way "Zootopia" is constructed is actually clever because it can engender discussion among viewers after they leave the theater. Like a Spike Lee film.

Charles said...

Sure, I get that I have to take your word for a lot of it; I was just wondering about that particular aspect, as you didn't go very deep into it. But your comment does. Thanks.