The Review: Part IV
I don't watch movies often. I'm not the kind to go out of my way to see films of any kind. Most of the ones I enjoyed I watched with my family on the television or on VHS or DVD. I can count the number times I went to the theater in the past decade on one hand.
And Zootopia is the first movie in cinema history where I can look at the opening weekend box office numbers and count my dollars amongst them. Yes, you heard that correctly. A 30 year old has never been to any movie on opening weekend until this last Friday, March 4th.
But I guess that's to be expected. Afterall, I was the audience it was marketed for. I'm a furry who writes for a furry news website that often covers movies, books, video games and also covers fandom politic. I usually cover the later two with more regularity. However, as with this opening weekend viewing, I find myself in need to make an exception.
In this article, I'm not going to not talk about the movie itself from an artistic and visual standpoint. I'll leave that to the movie experts on this site as there are people better at that aspect. Instead, in the interest of diversity I'm going to instead analyze the film from the perspective that I'm more known for and that is the social dynamic and messaging of the film.
In this interest I will cover two moments. The one that I feel is the movie’s greatest triumph, and the one that is its greatest downfall. As said these will contain supreme spoilers. If you want no spoilers, skip to the conclusion and don't read the comments.
Spoiler warning: Obviously many others are going to be covering the broad review of the movie here, as we at Flayrah are kind of doing a review extravaganza event. There are already some that are general and spoiler free. Therefore, in order to keep things fresh I will be doing one that contains a bit more spoilers than they do. So this is your warning. Only this introduction and the article's conclusion will be spoiler free. The main sections of the article and the comments will be free game and contain spoilers.
The Best Moment: Integrity
When crossaffliction and I were having back and forth discussion of predictions on the way the movie would play out>, I made the claim that Nick and Judy were in for a rocky ride at the point where the plot revealed that the predators of Zootopia were going savage (which I predicted would be a more central part of the film after the Jan 1st trailer). I made the assumption, foolishly, that Nick would have worried about harming a friend so he would back away. And I was dead wrong.
And I have never been so happy to be wrong. Instead it happened because of an event in the center of the film, and to me is the very heart of the movie.
After cracking the case and finding the missing mammals they learn that all of them were predators and have gone feral. Since she cracked the case, Judy is thrust in front of the media ill-prepared. With furries and our blunderous history with press, the rest is a familiar story. A well meaning bunny tells the cameras the facts she knows and overheard at the time. In her ignorance, she puts forth a narrative to the press where she believes the predators are "going savage" because of something happening to their biology to trigger the events.
In the meanwhile, pictures of predators in feral states flash behind her. The prey species of the city begin to panic. Riots begin in the city of Zootopia and prey animals hold their kids closer to them around the predator species.
Nick chews her out over her statements, knowing the implications of those words and the impact it would have on predators such as himself. He wonders how much of it was the "facts of the case" and how much of it was her "personal belief".
However, he is the only one who gives her direct grief over it. Her boss, a water buffalo, finally respects her, and she gets called into city hall to talk with the mayor. The mayor proposes that Judy be the poster-bunny of the ZPD.
And in that moment, she declines. Wracked with guilt over the riots going on in the city, and that it was her words that caused it, she resigns her position from the force and places her badge on the desk and walks out the door. But while she leaves the room the camera fixates upon the badge laid on the mayor's desk. One word is legible across the badge's face: Integrity.
The word and series of scenes shook me, and I knew exactly what they were doing.
It is the closest that a children's film could ever hope to get to the incidents that have been popping up across America. Where a cop, in a moment of ignorance, takes an action they should not have. And in the end, the entire community suffers over the mistake made. The movie's opinion on what needs to be done is clear. Despite how well-intentioned Judy was, and despite the fact that she was not being punished for her actions that caused the chaos, the correct thing for her to do is to understand that in that moment, where holding the title you wanted all your life means that the community you swore to uphold has to suffer, you give up that title.
That is integrity.
This kind of message is essential in this moment in our history and the fact that it was a "children's movie" that had to make it is astonishing. But it is a pleasant surprise. It is an essential lesson that we want our future officers and difference makers to uphold to and it deserves full praise for being there. The craftsmanship of the message was so artfully done that it didn't feel like a lecture, but a consumable lesson that not only the children in the room needed to hear, but the adults as well. As adults we deal with trying to obtain our personal dreams and all too often we may be called upon to step upon the backs of others to get there. And hopefully in those moments we too can have the integrity of Judy Hopps.
The Worst Moment: The Antagonist, their Method, and the Statistics
When lost in the moment of the movie I didn't think too much of the story's flaws, I walked out of the theater bright eyed and loving everything about Zootopia from top to bottom. Then something stuck in my mind, and would not let go. Essentially it was a blundering oversight in the world building of Zootopia and the understanding of what causes systemic level prejudices. All these errors boil down to one character, the antagonist, May Bellwether.
In essence the flaw can be summarized in two quotes by the antagonist in correlation with the antagonist's motives, her methods, and the environment portrayed by the other parts of the film.
First we get a feel for the way prejudices present themselves in the city of Zootopia. There are the minor prejudices of course: species, urban/rural, district biases. But the biggest one, and the main conflict of the movie centers around that of predator versus prey, which I will call dietism for the remainder of the article as a short-hand (because furries are good at this whole neologism thing).
So in this world laced with dietism I assumed that it would be the predators who are overall suppressing the prey. However, like my short story "The Curators" in The Furry Future, Disney decided to go the other way and make it the predators who are the ones being systematically suppressed by the prey animals. I don't know if that was what they were going for but here are a few examples in the movie that support this argument:
- The ZPD has a cheetah, a creature known for its speed and agility, manning the front desk. In the meanwhile, many of the cops who are in top position are burly prey animals. No wonder the poor guy is scarfing doughnuts and sassing Judy when she first arrives.
- The elephants at the ice cream shop states to Nick that they "have the right to refuse service to anyone."
- Nick's background story and experiences in the scouts.
- Many predator animals are in positions which are considered underclass. They are tied with criminal elements frequently. The only exceptions I can think of are the Mayor Lionheart (remember this) and the snow leopard newscaster.
- And most importantly, when May Bellwether is giving her villainous dialog she drops a bombshell statistic: 90% of the Zootopian residents are prey animals.
Now let's take a step back and understand the politics of Zootopia. It is a democratic city. We know this because of another quote from May Bellwether: "I think he [Mayor Lionheart] used me just to get the sheep vote."
In a democratic society, where dietism is a common issue amongst the populous, a statistic of 90% causes the whole believable world of Zootopia to collapse in upon itself. Because in that kind of republic, a lion is extremely unlikely to be mayor. In fact I don't see how the pro-integration movement would have even have gotten off the ground. 90% is not just a majority, it is a super majority.
So we have an antagonist who is lamenting that Lionheart used her for the sheep vote and wants to be in political office really badly. So much so she would make predators into monsters and drive divisions, despite working for a pro-integration politician. Is there any way she could have gotten into office without relying on such an unstable scheme?
Oh yeah, she could have run against him for the position. And she would have won too, easily. You can try to debate me on this, and that Lionheart could have won, but trust me I've debated every scenario to myself over the past two days. There is no way a lion beats a sheep who have similar messages in a Zootopia election given the above items of dietism in combination with Zootopia's demographic.
Imagine if you can, an Iranian leader who is a Sunni. Imagine if you can a Saudi Arabian leader who is a Shia. Those are the odds that Lionheart, a predator, has of beating Bellwether, a prey animal in an open election in Zootopia. I mean she clearly has a posse whose willing to pull off these operational feats for her. Why not use them on a campaign trail instead of pulling off this predators going savage hustle?
May Bellwether running for office through a political campaign is to the antagonist of Zootopia as the eagles are to the protagonists of the Lord of the Rings. It's the Occam's razor solution that circumvents all the pomp and circumstance presented in the movie.
And even worse, for some reason, Ms. Bellwether continues to subject predators to the poisoning, even after she ousted Lionheart from political office. She no longer has any motive to do so. She already stirred the pot and got what she wanted. Why did she continue marking targets? It makes no sense. It makes her a cardboard villain, who makes no sense as well.
In the end I feel as if May Bellwether was a scapegoat - or sheep in this case - to gloss over the way that prejudices become prevalent in democratic politics. It is typically not the politician who becomes angry about not being in power, it is the people who fear a changing demographic where they are no longer hold a majority becoming angry enough to start to see the minority as a threat to their hold on power. And woe is to that county if a populist who feeds on those very fears rises to the top in the political structure, because then their supporters feel safer to commit their own acts of bigotry in the open. They don't need convoluted plots and schemes to get into office. They get there via the way any other politician does, through you.
It's a lesson that is needed in the modern world, overlooked by an artificial antagonist. Democracies don't become truly corrupt because a solitary politician became corrupt (but that certainly doesn't help good people's perspective on government). Democracies become corrupt because the people voting in them become corrupt, or simply when the number of corrupt individuals outnumber those who are not.
And the saddest thing about this oversight is, if the percentage of prey animals was dropped to the 60%-70% range, the believability of the story returns. Because that is diverse enough to have elections be tense enough for people looking for power to use alternate means.
It's not frequently that Disney comes out of its fantasy box. Their Epcot sized bubble, for better and for worse, is known for releasing romanticized films of a dream of a world that has simplified conflicts: where valiant knights take down evil witches or where a family can raise 101 spotted dogs without starving themselves to death. I believe these aren't terrible movies, they are more the ideal world we wish to live in. Where conflicts can be stewed down into something simple and consumable.
Zootopia had both succeeded and failed in the endeavor it set out to do and break free of such traditions. To develop more complex social interactions and put in a more grey tone. In many places they succeeded. But like with most new things, they stubbed their toes on some of the more nuanced details about what causes such grey situations in the first place. And in the end, when the antagonist was revealed, it fell back to its romanticized roots.
In other words: the movie set out to"ruin the magic", only to have the "ruin the magic" magic ruined by the old Disney formula popping in near the end. But I can't fault it from trying everything, and overall the result was an excellent step in the right direction. There were mistakes, but they are indeed new ones. And keep on making them, those new mistakes.
One of the greatest successes of the film is that it will be talked about. And not just in the sense of the film itself or the characters within it. But how the characters are reflective of our own society: dreams and ideals, versus the realities that need to be overcome. Instead of giving us a romanticized world, it realizes that reality is different. And in the end it's up to all of us to bridge the gap between our dreams and reality.
In other words, it's one heck of a "zipper-back" anthropomorphic fiction.