I finally went to see two popular animated movies at the $3 theater: Disney’s big budget / big hit Zootopia and the medium budget / medium hit Angry Birds based on the Finnish smartphone game. Like a lot of mainstream movies these days, both are allegories about classic iSteve topics like biodiversity.
Zootopia is a cop movie set in a utopian city of talking animals where lions lie down with lambs, where predator and prey normally get along with perfect amity. It’s about a tiny girl bunny who comes to the big city to follow her dreams and be a policeman, even though everybody tells her only large animals can be cops. To solve a big case and convince the police chief, a hard-headed Cape buffalo voiced by Idris Elba, that she belongs on the force, she has to enlist the help of a handsome fox conman (Jason Bateman).
Zootopia likely started out as a satire on diversity and political correctness, but then self-emasculated itself when early research reports came back that audiences want political correctness about diversity and feel-good pap: Anybody can be anything they dream of, as long as they work out enough.
The movie is still quite decent, although it’s painful to think about how good it could have been if that much talent had been given free rein to follow their instincts without PC being given a chokehold on their creativity.
From Slate today comes an article worrying that Disney almost didn’t gut their own movie:
By Aisha Harris
After months and months of vague promos, Zootopia’s arrival in theaters came as a surprise to viewers—not only was the film fun and entertaining, but it was also totally a message movie about the perils of racial profiling. And if you thought about it too hard, the racial allegory quickly began to fall apart: What’s with the discriminated-against predators also being in positions of institutional power? And why, in a movie about shutting down stereotypes, is the fox actually sneaky and the weasel really a cheater?
And why, in the scene that get the biggest laughs, are all the clerks at the Van Nuys Department of Motor Vehicles (pretty much the Van Nuys DMV I go to and where Homer Simpson’s sister-in-laws Patty and Selma work) sloths? And not stereotype-shattering sloths, but sloths who fulfill every stereotype you ever guiltily entertained about sloths and DMV clerks?
And there’s this scene that stereotypes wolves as liking to howl:
Moreover, if you watch closely, the filmmakers disclose what a Malthusian nightmare a predator-free ecosystem would be. For example, here is the rabbit heroine saying goodbye to her mother, father, and 275 siblings as she heads off to Zootopia. Watch Bunnyburrow’s population counter at 0:45:
Still, after decades of questionable and/or downright racist on-screen depictions of people of color, Disney’s attempt to address such heavy subject matter in an animated kids’ movie can be considered a valiant effort and a sign of progress.
Which is why it’s probably a good thing that a deleted scene from Zootopia that is now online didn’t make it into the final cut of the film.
This deleted scene explains the key question of why the 10% of the population who are predators don’t follow their instincts:
For starters, the tone of the scene is considerably darker than that of the lighthearted romp the movie eventually became. It depicts a ceremony, soon revealed to be a “taming party,” in which a young bear cub named Morris prepares to become a “big bear.” His father presents his eager, ecstatic son with a collar in front of a room full of equally eager and ecstatic bear cubs: “With this collar, Zootopia accepts me,” the papa bear announces, wistfully, as Morris repeats after him. There’s a tinge of sadness and hesitation as he goes to put it around Morris’ neck, and understandably so—Morris is soon given an electric shock after becoming too excited. The room gasps, and a startled Morris hugs his father tight.
The idea of animals in a kids’ movie suffering a form of ritualized corporeal punishment in order to gain acceptance by others is already pretty heavy—but it’s made even more disturbing when you consider it within the context of the film’s blatant racial allegory. The suggestion that the only way for the predators to coexist in the world of Zootopia is to “tame” them in adolescence would have brought in some icky, very colonial notions about race that such a film probably wouldn’t be able to engage with properly, to say the least. So let’s all be grateful that the top dogs at Disney made a wise decision to let this scene go.
And here’s another deleted scene, showing Jason Bateman’s male lead, a fox, having his taming collar temporarily removed by a doctor:
In other words, the predators were forced to stop preying on the prey pretty much the same way Alex is tamed in A Clockwork Orange. The idea of a huge budget talking animal knock off of the themes of A Clockwork Orange is pretty awesome.
But that explanation for why the world works the way it does was cut out of the movie because it wasn’t lame and PC enough. So in the final version of the movie, all the animals have just “evolved” to not prey on each other. Why? Just because. No cost is paid to evolve, there are no tradeoffs, no choices, nothing of interest.
To me, this lowers the stakes in the movie and makes the film quickly forgettable. Which is too bad because it has a lot going for it otherwise.
Here’s a documentary about how the creators were told by Disney suits and marketing researchers to drop the shock collars and make the movie about the evils of stereotypes:
Because audiences like Goodthink.
Angry Birds is set on a paradisiacal island where birds, lacking predators, have evolved to be flightless, much like the now extinct dodo bird of Mauritius and other birds on predator-free islands that have since been plagued, sometimes into extinction, by the arrival of human sailors, along with their pigs, dogs, and rats. Feral egg-eating pigs remain a major threat to rare birds on Hawaii.
The birds on their isolated island live in pleasant harmony with each other, caring for their eggs, taking yoga classes, and, sure enough, there’s the bird version of the Free Hugs guy from Times Square. (I told you that guy was famous.) Almost everybody is happy except for grumpy Red (voiced by Jason Sudeikis), who is an Angry Red Bird. He gets sentenced to anger management therapy.
Then a boatload of pigs arrive from an unknown island.
The naive birds, having never met pigs before, don’t listen to Red’s warning that something seems fishy about these friendly pigs.
SPOILER ALERT: The pigs steal all the birds’ eggs and take them back to their island for a feast. Red leads the now angry birds in an attack on Piggy Island, which requires the flightless birds to shoot themselves at the pig city using sling shots. The birds heroically retrieve their eggs and go back to their own island, and don’t live happily ever after with the pigs at all.
The movie is based on old fashioned 1990s Edward O. Wilson / Jared Diamond-style concern for biodiversity (here’s Diamond’s chapter in The Third Chimpanzee on the sad fate of the giant flightless birds of New Zealand after the Maori and their pigs arrived). But it seems topical today because of the Camp of the Saints floating hijrah in the Mediterranean.
It’s not bad, although it will appeal most to very small children.