Consideration of Works Present: Zootopia

(Picture from here.)

Zootopia is, of course, the newest Disney animated film. While it is computer generated animation, this is not a Pixar film. It doesn’t look like Pixar. It doesn’t tell story like Pixar.

If anything, it in some ways feels more like the classic Disney animation of a couple of generations ago: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, etc. Not in the sense of the story style– the classic Disney films are products of their time. Zootopia is definitely a product of the 21st century. And, while it does not feel like a Pixar film, John Lasseter, one of the creative forces behind Pixar, is the head of Disney animation so there is some inevitable cross fertilization.

Still, the best Pixar films go after really big themes: fatherhood (Monsters Inc), loss of family and child (Finding Nemo), replacement (Toy Story). They follow the long established path of saying something profound within the confines of a children’s story. I heard they made a story about talking cars but upon investigation decided that was mere rumor.

Zootopia is smaller and older. The themes are not so grand and the resolutions not so shattering. At the end of Zootopia, characters are still the same people they started with, wiser and kinder. They still have to get up in the morning and go to the same job. The city has the same problems even though the form of those problems are new. The live happily ever after feeling of a child’s story isn’t there.

We have to talk about the plot here. I’ll try not to spoil it too much but the arc of the story should be fairly obvious to almost anybody from the trailers.

The initial intro and world building shows that the animals believe they evolved to cooperate together. Predator and prey have become friends. The lion doesn’t so much lie down with the lamb as they’re co-workers in the city.

Judy Hopps is a female rabbit who comes to the city of Zootopia to be a police officer. The big animals are in charge here: rhinos, lions, tigers, hippos, elephants, etc. Judy is the first rabbit to graduate the police academy. So she is, of course, put into parking violations. Step 1: character has to prove herself.

She runs into Duke Weaselton, a fox who’s a minor con artist. He’s making a good living in Zootopia doing things on the hairy edge of legality. Judy takes on the task of finding a missing otter and stiff arms Duke into helping her. Step 2: budding buddy relationship. Make no mistake. This is a buddy movie.

Step 3: they find the otter but uncover a much larger conspiracy. The otter has reverted to his primitive, predator, self. This is where, I think, Zootopia really ratchets up its SF creds. Not only do we have animals that have human intelligence, their original, animal nature is still there. Humanity is grafted on and someone has found the means to unhook their higher selves and release their lower ones. Further, it initially appears to be permanent.

The rest of the story is how Duke and Judy’s friendship breaks and is mended. The proper villains are discovered and dealt with and the afflicted people (predators) treated and cured. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl– without any possible hint sexual overtones. Duke and Judy become very good, loving, friends.

So I’m going through the first five minutes and don’t buy their self-belief at all. I cannot suspend my disbelief that much. If the animals have their known animal nature it had to come from somewhere. If it’s still there, it has to have been dealt with.

Now, there are no humans present in the film but, being who I am, it took about forty seconds to spin up the background to this world. These animals may believe they evolved to come together. I know different.

They were made.

These animals were constructed. It happened a long time ago– long enough that they could create their own myths about it. Humans did it– who else would uplift cheetahs and gerbils? And then humans did the best thing they could do: they left them alone.

Oh, my God. Zootopia is a science fiction story.

What? you say. There are no SF elements in the story at all.

Not true.

The world of Zootopia is populated by animals that are changed from the quadrapeds we know. They are upright. They have human speech. They have human cognition. They also have their evolutionary heritage. Foxes are still foxes even though they do not eat rabbits.

(In point of fact, eating is not dealt with very much in the film. One wonders if there are food animals that do not have cognition to support this world. Or, like in Varley‘s Ophiuchi Hotline, plants modified to give carnivores what they need. Do predator animals get that strange feeling we might get when we eat primates? A frisson of connecting to a different past. But I digress.)

Does this sound familiar?

It should. It’s the backbone of Cordwainer Smith‘s work. And David Brin‘s. It’s the idea behind Planet of the Apes and a number of other science fiction books and films.

There’s a great line in Smith’s Norstrialia where C’Mell, a cat derived girl, tells Roderick, a human disguised as a cat derived man, that her children would not grow up like her without intervention. They would be normal kittens, unaware. Unhuman. The ancient animal history haunts the uplifted animal– it’s all through Zootopia. It’s all through science fiction all the way back to The Island of Dr. Moreau. It haunts the characters in Zootopia as well: the idea of predators being overcome by their past nature puts the entire idea of Zootopia at risk. It pits prey and predator against one another.

To me this made the story so much better. It makes the film feel grounded as, I think, the makers desired but not in the way they intended. (I strongly recommend the documentary on Zootopia. It’s here. Not a hint of science fiction in any of the staff.)

Why, you might ask, can’t I just accept this is another Disney animal movie?

Because it’s different from a typical Disney animal movie.

Other such films by Disney (or by other studios) fall into one of two camps: the animals are themselves in their own world as in Zootopia or The Jungle Book. Or the animals are retelling a human story as in Disney’s Robin Hood.

If the animals are on their own there has to be a reason for them to exist. In The Secret of Nimh the animals were explicitly uplifted by the National Institute of Mental Health. (NIMH.) TSON is a fun but weak film. It has magic in it and all sorts of such things that crack the story line.

Zootopia does not have this weakness. The story stands or falls on the world building and does not stray from it. There’s no magic jewel or sudden enlightenment from On High. Duke and Judy work it out using their own (human derived) brains.

Now, there’s no reason in the world a person (other than myself) couldn’t enjoy this film as just an allegory. There’s a message against bias and preconceptions. The main characters come to realizations that their perception of the world is flawed. There is a strong expression of love at the heart of this film that is very touching.

But, in my opinion, allegory works best as a layer on top of a fully realized story. This is where I think science fiction operates at its finest. It takes the hard processes of technology and science and then weaves a story that allows the allegory to be expressed out of the whole. That contrast of cold and hot is what makes it worthwhile.

I am far too entrenched in biology and evolution to buy animals “evolving” into super-cooperators like people on their own. It hasn’t happened all that often in mammals– mole rats and people are the only true super-cooperators I know. But a made creature? We’ve done that lots of times, both explicitly in the lab and implicitly in the act of domestication. Uplifting species is something we’re going to do, it’s just a matter of when and how. And it takes no effort at all to imagine such uplifted species would create a past for themselves. We did. Why wouldn’t they?

To me, this gives Zootopia a grounding in my own reality. I can imagine human beings sufficiently advanced creating these creatures and releasing them. Probably more than once– the first experiments would likely have been disasters. From then on they created their own world. We’re just watching.

That said, you don’t have to have my backstory to enjoy this film.

Make up your own.




Consideration of Works Present: Zootopia — 3 Comments

  1. The use of animals, dragging them by magic or science to be closer to humans, is a way for us to reflect upon our own nature. For the Victorians and Edwardians (think Jekyll and Hyde) it was also a way to reflect upon sin and the nature of sin. We are born animals — why do we have to become angels? Where did God get such a dingbat idea? And so Stevenson split out the animal and angelic nature in Dr. Jekyll, and got his novel. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but the way you describe the predators’ carnivore nature being suppressed — it reminds me of being in the closet.
    The other strain in our thought is equally strong — that denying or suppressing our animal nature is dangerous. We need to acknowledge our animal nature. As Joni Mitchell sang it, we got to get ourselves back to that garden. And so you have Rousseau, and Rima the jungle girl, and Tarzan, and also D.H. Lawrence. We have been balancing these two sides of our psyches for a long long time.

  2. I don’t agree. We, as humans, have a tendency to lump all other species not us into the category of “animals”. So when we talk about our “animal nature” it’s as if it is something common to all other species that we are somehow denying.

    It’s important to recognize that we are our own species. We bear in our “lowly frame” the marks of our heritage but we are distinct from that heritage. We have a lot in common with chimps, for example, but that does not deny the fact that we are not chimps. We are who we are.

    Similarly, other species who have been uplifted to the same intellectual level as ourselves would not merely be humans in animal suits any more than they would be animals in human suits. They would be their own species.

    There’s a subtlety in Zootopia’s portrayal of citizens who’s cognitive nature has been suppressed that I didn’t get into. They are not merely sudden “animals”– though that is how the citizens respond to them. They are hyper-aggressive caricatures of animals, frightened and angry at a suddenly foreign world. They haven’t been thrust back into their animal state; they’ve been thrust into a new state that resembles what we would think of as an animal state.

    Or I’m overthinking it.