Urban Jungle

So Disney comes in just under the wire to finally tell us what ZOOTOPIA is actually all about, after about a year of low-key (for Disney) marketing mainly focused on anthropomorphic animal visual puns. The result:

So. The basic premise for the main character is already pretty interesting from a thematic standpoint. The animals-as-people trope has pretty much always worked best when it’s making points about human behavior/society/etc by associating personality types and social-structures with (broadly-held assumptions about) animal behavior – i.e. putting any kind of identifiable human uniform/costume on an animal automatically makes a statement – and the angle here is pretty nakedly all about professional gender/class/ethnic discrimination; in as much as our lead heroine is Zootopia’s “first rabbit police officer” (Ginnifer Goodwin as “Judy Hopps”) apparently working to crack her first big case while facing doubts, dismissals and the stigma of “tokenism” about her abilities due to size/species/etc.

Yeah, okay. That’s a solid starting-point, certainly the first place I’d imagine one would have to go with an “Aesop in 2015” pretext. But it’s the hinted-at main storyline (re: Judy’s big case) that looks to have a lot more to unpack, theme wise: The idea looks to be that Zootopia (the city) is a kind of futuristic metropolis that’s able to exist via animals of all species having long ago evolved beyond (by agreement? By happenstance?) their predator/prey/circle-of-life “natural” relationship, and that this balance is threatened by a phenomenon of seemingly-random animal citizens (only predators?) inexplicably “going savage” aka reverting back to their primal red-in-tooth-and-claw instincts. Being a “one lone cop with a hunch” story, this presumably involves some sort of far-reaching conspiracy – a G-rated cartoon-animal version of the “everybody freak the hell out” button from KINGSMAN, maybe?

It feels like there’s a lot to unpack there, yes? At the most basic, you’ve got a lady cop versus danger posed by (chosen? encourage? forced?) reversion to violent “natural” tendencies; which has some fairly ugly parallels in the Men’s Rights/PUA scene (i.e. “I should be dominant and brutish because that’s how nature/evolution intended it!” “Boys are supposed to be out-of-control little monsters! It’s normal!”) that couldn’t have been lost on whoever was working out this premise, given that Disney projects spend ages in story-development.

But more broadly, the idea that a “bright future” civilization in the upscale L.A./San Fran mold (sunny, hyper-diverse, public-transit, prevalent mall/juicebar architectural-aesthetic) held together by the citizenry agreeing to curb behaviors that would infringe on the greater whole – implicitly, even in they come “naturally” or some have more “curbing” to do than others – being a societal ideal is (intentionally or not) a pretty close shot across the bow to trendy lowercase-l “libertarianism.” It’s also, thematically at least, a close cousin to bugbears of the above-mentioned takes on “human nature,” in as much as the idea of boys/men lashing-out because society is evolving in a “feminized” direction where they’re (supposedly) unwelcome in their “normal” state being a cornerstone of MRA ideology.

Obviously, you can’t expect any of that to be (explicitly) stated in the movie-proper. It’s a funny-animal movie for kids, and the premise almost certainly blossomed less out of deliberate metaphor building than something more “organic” like “Okay, city of animals – how does that actually WORK?” But on the other hand, George Miller didn’t deliberately set out to make the fourth MAD MAX explicitly about patriarchy, either – sometimes the theme finds the project. Given that picking through Disney features for underlying subtext is something like a national sport at this point, I can’t imagine I’ll be the only one making note of it if the actual movie plays out on the same lines the trailer suggests. And since we now live in a world where casting a woman and a black man as the new leads of STAR WARS can now trigger (hilariously impotent) calls for boycott, the results should be pretty interesting.

ZOOTOPIA opens March 4th, 2015.

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