Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Zootopia and the anthropomorphic principle

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Concept art for Zootopia

Note: Mild spoilers follow for Zootopia.

I enjoyed Zootopia one heck of a lot, but the most emphatic recommendation of all came from my daughter, who burst into tears as soon as the movie ended. And it wasn’t because something onscreen had upset her, or even because she was startled by the unstoppable Shakira track that blasts over the closing credits: she was sad because she loved it so much, and now it was over. In fact, she was inconsolable, to the point where I had to carry her into the lobby and reassure her that we would see it again soon. And I’m looking forward to it, as well as to the countless other viewings to follow, which will give us plenty to discuss when she gets older. I plan to talk to her at length about my favorite scene, the chase in Little Rodentia, and how its sudden shifts of scale remind me of animation’s visual possibilities—and how rarely they seem to be utilized. We’ll also dissect the cleverness of the screenplay, which offers up a neat false ending before burrowing deeper into the story’s implications. She can compare it to the Richard Scarry books she reads, and even to Robin Hood. And when she’s ready, I’ll gently point out that this is something like the fourth consecutive Disney movie in which a seemingly innocuous character turns out to be the real bad guy, which makes me think that this trope ought to be retired.

Above all else, we can talk about its message, which, as has been widely noted, is a timely one indeed. And it deserves a lot of credit for this. Most ordinary movies would have been content to settle for the moral that anyone can be anything, or that we should all be a little nicer to one another. A slightly more ambitious film might have reminded us that we shouldn’t judge based on appearances, and it might conceivably have even broached the subject of racial profiling. But Zootopia goes even further, into the implication that there are systems in this world that are set up to benefit—deliberately or otherwise—from institutionalized prejudice. It’s a heady lesson, even if it will mostly affect viewers who were already primed to receive it, like those who cringe a bit when Judy Hopps, a rabbit, praises Nick Wilde, a fox, for being so “articulate.” But you never know. And I think it’s true, as other commentators have pointed out, that the movie is able to go as far as it does because its parts are played by animals. The first trailer took pains to introduce audiences to the concept of anthropomorphism, but it’s an idea that we all intuitively understand, and it’s generally accepted that certain kinds of stories go down more easily when presented in animal form. It’s the reverse of the uncanny valley: we empathize with animals because our minds focus on the points we have in common, a tendency that has been utilized by moralists from Aesop to La Fontaine.

Concept art for Zootopia

But there’s an even more interesting point to be made here, which is that the anthropomorphism of Zootopia seems to have loosened up the filmmakers themselves. Since we find talking animals in everything from Kung Fu Panda to My Little Pony, it’s a little surprising to realize how rarely it’s been used in its purest form by Disney: Robin Hood is the only other movie from the classic canon—if we don’t count Chicken Little—to show animals interacting in a world without humans. And it’s worth asking why it resists exploiting such a powerful tool, especially because it appeals so much to children: it’s no accident that Robin Hood, which is far from the best movie the studio ever made, is the one that my daughter has watched the most. In part, it’s due to a residual anxiety over being seen as kid’s stuff, which still haunts the genre as a whole, but there’s also an element of caution at play. Walt Disney himself was oddly insistent on centering his movies on a boring human couple, with the animators reduced to creating a riot of energy in the supporting characters: it’s as if the Marx Brothers had built all their movies around Zeppo, or even Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle. It was a conservative choice made by a studio that embraced conventional values, and animals have always enabled exactly that anarchic vein in animation that Disney did his best to repress. (Disney buffs have long wondered why the studio repeatedly tried and failed to develop Chanticleer, an animal fable featuring none other than Reynard the Fox, and I suspect that we have our answer here.)

Something similar appears to have happened with Zootopia, even if it’s obviously the product of another place and time. Try to imagine this story being made with human characters, and you can’t: its anthropomorphism was a shield that protected it throughout what must have been a lengthy development process. I’m tempted to propose an anthropomorphic principle of fiction, in parallel to the anthropic principle that I’ve discussed here before, which states that a story that grounds itself in a nonhuman world is more likely to take meaningful risks with our human preconceptions. To borrow a concept from the movie’s own lexicon, it allows animators to follow their instincts. (I also can’t resist pointing out that both “animal” and “animation” emerge from the same root, which refers to nothing less than the soul.) And I have a feeling that this is where the real influence of Zootopia will be felt. A movie can’t change the world, unfortunately, but it can certainly change a studio, and I’m hopeful that Disney will continue to pursue the line of thinking it represents. It gives us a world rich enough to sustain multiple sequels, so here’s my pitch for the next one: a movie that raises the question of why everyone we meet here is a mammal, as if we couldn’t be expected to relate to anything with feathers or scales. That’s a form of prejudice, too—and if Zootopia itself teaches us anything, it’s that our assumptions are sometimes so large that they can’t even be seen.

Written by nevalalee

March 14, 2016 at 9:59 am

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