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Zootopia: the beautiful secular landscape

CULTURE | Stephen McAlpine
Thursday 14 April 2016

This article first appeared on Stephen’s blog. It is reproduced here, with permission.

If you ever had any lingering doubts that the cineplex was the new church, the movie the new sermon, and the popcorn and coke the new communion elements, then go watch Disney’s latest offering, Zootopia, and dispel those doubts once and for all.

Zootopia’s basic storyline is about a bunny: a young female rabbit – Judy Hopps – who becomes a police officer in the movie’s eponymous city; a  utopian metropolis for all mammals of all shapes and sizes, and, more importantly, of both persuasions, predator and prey.

Somewhere in the past all species have evolved to live in harmony, with the 10 per cent predator groupings now rendered harmless to their vegetarian neighbours. Zootopia brings all of these animals together, and celebrates their difference and their sameness simultaneously. The city caters for all shapes and sizes, and proclivities, yet functions with a deep unity that all animals can get along.

Zootopia. Credit: Disney

Judy Hopps. Credit: Disney

At the outset the movie takes the predictable Hollywood line, and the stated claim of Zootopia is that in the city, anyone can be anything they want. That’s pretty much Tinsel Town on a plate right there, and if you’ve got your basic cultural glasses on you can easily see it and filter it out.

However Zootopia takes that to a new level, a level that simply demonstrates how popular culture is driving the foundational substructures of the hyper-modern view of the world. The movie was a not-so-subtle statement on a number of social matters including two that stand out in particular.

Nick Wilde. Credit: Disney

Nick Wilde. Credit: Disney

  1. Religious Bigotry

The central premise was the political class’s attempts to create fear in an otherwise utopian conglomerate of species, in which one grouping, whilst generally no threat to the general population, contains a few bad eggs.

Fear of this rogue element, in this case a number of predators who have been manipulated via toxins from a plant to predators to their predatory ways, is threatening Zootopia‘s utopia. The toxin was harvested and dispersed to create mistrust of all predators, most of whom simply wished to live peaceable lives.

A shadowy group behind the scenes is involved, but the political elites are happy to use this to create panic about all predators, and hence return control to the 90 per cent majority non-predatory animals.

       2. Sexuality

One particular police officer predator – an overweight, outlandish and flamboyantly gay cheetah, is obviously harmless despite the threat of the toxin.  Despite this he is shifted from his front desk office to the basement and given another role in order that he not be seen. His favourite pastime is playing a mobile app of one of Zootopia‘s most famous residents chanteuse, Gazelle, who is, funnily enough, a gazelle, and appears to be modelled on a mix of J-Lo and Shakira.  The loud, butch and very water-buffalo chief of police also has a liking for the app, and the scene in which he is sprung using it is hilarious.

Officer Clawhauser. Credit: Disney

Officer Clawhauser. Credit: Disney

Now I know that many movies and TV series are deep social commentary, but historically the best of these pose deep questions of the audience. There is space to think through issues, complexity is the name of the game, and often the message is that nothing is that simple; good intentions often have unintended consequences.

Not any longer.  The new social commentary at the movies, employed by the big companies and pitched at the youth market in glorious technicolour, asks no questions, requires no pushback, and is pre-blended to ensure it goes down smoothly with no lumpy bits.

You may well ask, “isn’t that obvious?” as my 14-year old did when I gave her the one-minute version of what is above.

But maybe it’s not so obvious at all.

The other movie-goers may have walked out having laughed (Zootopia‘s got some killer scenes), having enjoyed the animation, and having spent a cheap tickets night at the movies with their kids.

No, it won’t be obvious to them at all, but it doesn’t need to be does it? It simply needs to move their affections, to make them feel something, to shape them in deep subterranean ways they barely understand. It doesn’t need to preach every sermon, just one more sermon.  Because as we are wont to say in relations to the hundreds of gospel sermons we have heard; you can’t remember many of them at all, but together they have shaped your thinking and your actions.

No, Zootopia isn’t the best secular sermon, or even the most memorable, but it does what it was designed to do: fit another piece of the culture’s rapidly forming picture puzzle into place, a puzzle whose box cover portrays a beautiful utopian landscape.

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