Zootopia and its Edge Cases

Posted on May 4, 2016 by Richard Goulter
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Last weekend I went and saw Zootopia.
Today a mate of mine bantered with me about the movie. Which is a push enough to get me to jot down some thoughts.

Spoilers follow.
But I don’t think there’s much to spoil.

I’d heard only good things about Zootopia going in, and how amazing it was. After seeing Inside Out, I guess my standards for a “kids movie” is much higher.
In terms of quality of the story, both Zootopia and Inside Out are pretty generic; but Inside Out wins in my book because it’s inherently more meta, & it’d be more precise to say the constituent-substories are each generic. – Inside Out is also really sharp, very intelligent.
– But what’s cool about both these movies is they present a compelling setting. These settings serve as good platforms from which to discuss other ideas, external to the story. (Inside Out’s credits even feature such extension).

Where Inside Out’s context is “emotions neurology-brain-stuff” (as well as dealing with sorrow), Zootopia tackles “diversity”.
– From mainstream bias to “women in tech” & “the wage gap”, I was expecting propaganda along the lines of “yay diversity is great”. – What Zootopia delivers is … not that. ish.

Brief aside, just so we’re clear on Zootopia’s setting:
Zootopia is is like an alternative universe where modern world is populated by anthropomorphic animals, rather than humans. – Animals are divided between Predators and Prey. In time immemorial, the predators were the oppressors of the oppressed prey. In modern, civilised times, the animals have evolved to a supposed “egalitarian society, where anyone can be anything”. But things aren’t equal in Zootopia-city.
Worth noting further, certain animals have stereotypes or stigmas attached to them (foxes are sly/deceiving; rabbits are weak, carrot-farmers). The society in Zootopia is also extremely segregated. (e.g. elephants, presumably, don’t live in the same housing blocks as hamsters).
– For all I felt the film lacked; the setting is an interesting (if not an extreme or polemic) one.

Ostensibly, Zootopia does have a nice-sounding, fuzzy message of “let anyone do anything”:
The oppressed sheep- (prey) and-female assistant-mayor gets pushed around and ignored by the lion-and-male mayor; builds solidarity with the bunny (and female) protagonist by way of “us little guys have to stick out for each other”.
It’s celebrated (by the mayoralty, & narrator) that the protagonist is the first bunny cop; and later, similarly the first sly-fox is also a “yay more diverse police force”.
Prejudice is bad, like when the fox gets rejected (and beaten) for wanting to join the Scouts (dominantly/entirely prey-animals).
And, sure, the fox is a sly deceiver, but only because no one gave him a chance to be otherwise.
– The film ends with Shakira’s “Try Everything”, after a moral-of-the-story like “sure, animals have limits; but don’t let fear of those limits stop you from trying what you want to do”.

(On further thought, even those examples aren’t so black-and-white:
the bunny isn’t the first ‘prey’-animal to be on the police, (Idris Elba’s character is a buffalo, and there’re elephants on the force), merely the first bunny.
And there’s an irony in the ‘prey’-animals of the Scouts beating up the ‘predator’ fox since they fear him to be perfidious and violent. – The recent term “cry-bully” comes to mind).

A small part of my ‘disappointment’ is the cop-out of that moral-of-the-story.
– A key (but plotwise, somewhat contrived) tension in Zootopia was “are predators inherently violent creatures?”. More explicitly, is it justifiable for prey to be concerned that predators they interact with may become violent. “No, don’t be a prejudiced asshole” the movie says, on the one hand. – But on the other hand, the godfather’s bodyguards are all large beefy animals; “anyone can be anything; but you can’t be a bodyguard if you’re a mouse” seems contrary to that.
The movie never explicitly says “it is good and just that the police force is filled with the strong animals”, but never denies that there’re reasons for such inequalities.
(Of course, in real life, differences in ability aren’t inherently as pronounced as between mice and elephants. I’d never be able to beat Usain Bolt in a sprint; but it’s not that any particular job is inherently best for some particular group of people by orders-of-magnitude differences).
– Perhaps best to say that the film’s setting is nuanced, even if it’s plot mightn’t be.

I think it didn’t quite explore the ‘edge’ cases quite far enough.
In tensions like “women in tech”, “the wage gap” and such, it’s often suggested that women’s preferences differ from men; e.g. women are interested in people-things rather than mechanical-things, or women prefer jobs which offer flexible hours over jobs which demand high availability. – Zootopia’s mapping of this is interesting: the rabbits (except the protagonist) prefer to be carrot farmers; the protagonists parents suggesting “it’s the way nature intended” (or so), but this also comes across as old-fashioned.
– I mean, in a movie where the characters are very different, I’m not handing out cookies if the movie has a moral like “people are different and we should tolerate that”. Cookies are for where we should tolerate bad people; or where differences should be tolerated. – And, sure, it’s a kid’s movie; but those tough questions are what you’d try and illuminate with such a model.

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