Monday, December 26, 2016

Can a Zoo Be a Utopia?

When Disney makes an animated film about how real life is messy, how messy can it be? 2016's Zootopia has unavenged violence against children, debate about biological justifications for racial stereotypes, positive portrayals of mobsters, and a song by Shakira called "Try Everything". I don't think the implications of such a song were clear to the people in charge of releasing this film but mostly Zootopia has genuine intellectual stimulation that well compliments Disney's usual knack for making talking animals charming.

The story centres on a rabbit named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) whom we meet as a child who dreams of growing up to be the first bunny cop. So the movie begins with the racial politics that make its humour work for being so surprising in a Disney film while continually forcing the audience to examine the basis for it. I'm not a fan of allegory and here's a good example as to why not reading something as an allegory improves it considerably. There are, in the film, real biological differences between the races, actually different species, that dictate behaviour so to suggest the whole thing is a coded version of human racial relations is not smart. But it works if you simply read it as a demonstration of human behaviour in a truly different context, where none of those exhibiting the behaviour are human.

I suppose this won't stop racists from tucking the story in their hats as supporting their views to some extent. But I think there was innocent provocation in the basic idea, a subtle wrongness to make jokes about how only other bunnies are allowed to call Judy cute and how Nicholas (Jason Bateman), a fox, turned out to be a con artist because that's the sort of thing foxes do. But a big part of the film is showing how people end up in roles because cultural expectations shuttle them there, not because they're biologically better disposed for it. On the one hand, it seems sensible that Judy can't be a cop when she's tiny compared to elephants and rhinos. But she proves herself better suited to catching a weasel (Alan Tudyk) who runs into a ghetto for tiny rodents because of her size. Again, an allegorical reading would take us to saying things like Asians might not be good drivers but they're great at math--it's better to focus on the good intentions of the story.

I wonder, though, at the protagonist's reliance on mob torture in the last act of the film with an Arctic shrew mafia don (Maurice LaMarche) portrayed as a friendly character whose methods aren't even questioned by the protagonist who's committed to law enforcement. It reminded me of the positive, normalised portrayal of yakuza in the conservative Japanese film The Eternal Zero from a few years ago. I seriously wonder about the influence of organised crime in media.

The rapport between Judy and Nicholas is really sweet and great, a scene where she apologises is played just right, as is the awkward press conference where she doesn't understand the racially charged things she's said that upsets him. What the movie really does well is show how thoroughly ingrained presumptions on race can be, even for people with the best of intentions.

Twitter Sonnet #946

Like chips, they peer from dough too sweet for saints.
The eyes in cycles slum in notes for phones.
In socks too red to think a foot she feints.
The glass in burgundy reflects the bones.
In acrobatic tales a pine can stick.
A deck awaits on wrapping steel for stars.
In strings the light prepares a yearly trick.
Around the dough, the ginger raises bars.
A beaten star arrives in desert sand.
Desire marks the longest feet up north.
Observers place their tents in freezing land.
Through walls of wind and ice they venture forth.
Unmentionable tinsel twines the veins.
In silver dreams a talking moon just wanes.

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