MAY 17, 2016
ANIMALS LOOM LARGE in our fabular universe, invested with all sorts of political and libidinal energies. Because we have no — or very little — access to animal interiority, all animal stories are either approximations or allegories; either way, they’re invariably speculative. John Berger famously argued that the roots of metaphor lay in our relationship with our animal others, in the traffic across difference that an encounter with an animal sets in motion. It follows that animals are often a means by which we imagine ourselves otherwise, as we project what Berger calls “the pettiness of current social practices” onto animal life. Our animal speculations are as much attempts to understand our own lives in different skins as they are attempts to enter into psychic worlds very much unlike our own.
Since the early days of Mickey Mouse, animal speculation of this long-standing sort has become increasingly subject to financial speculation, as publishers and studio executives attempt to attune their animal fictions to the appetites of the public, trading on the mass appeal of their wide-eyed, fuzzy-faced creations. The Walt Disney Corporation, especially now that its relationship with Pixar is fully symbiotic, is the behemoth at the heart of this global animal futures market, the principal engine of speculation on speculation about animal life. The films that Disney makes, of course, are only the beginning: the tail that wags the Mouse is merchandising, theme-park rides, and the vast penumbra of consumables that surrounds mass-market animal fictions like Ratatouille or Finding Nemo. Last month, Disney launched its latest speculative enterprise: a star-studded, semi-live-action reboot of The Jungle Book, which seems calculated to draw the ethos of the iconic animated film back toward the darker world of Rudyard Kipling’s original stories. Whether any of the real menace — genuine, PG-13 menace — that permeates Kipling’s fables survives in this latest adaptation is doubtless a question that the animal speculators in Disney’s corner offices have endlessly focus-grouped and market-tested.
The Jungle Book, like many other Disney properties, is an animal fiction that exists in a space marked by human life. It follows in a line of narrative reasoning extending back at least to Br’er Rabbit and Beatrix Potter, in which the hedgerow or briar patch where animals live is just through the woods or over the hill from the human farm, the human town, or the human city. These animals exist in our world and consequently there is always the possibility of encounter. Of course, close encounters of the human kind can be perilous for any animal hero, as children learned in Finding Nemo, but more often than not, the presence of human beings in animal fiction for children opens up the possibility of care and even a kind of mutuality across the species divide. In Potter’s “The Tailor of Gloucester,” for instance, mice sew a waistcoat for the beleaguered old tailor, doing their part for Britain’s economy and the poor sad hearts of its factory children. Compare this with Disney’s most recent bid for box office supremacy, which removes human beings from the equation entirely. This is the world-without-us of Zootopia, a high-minded fable of animal enlightenment.
In Zootopia, animals claim to have solved a problem that has so far largely confounded human beings: how to build a just society. The opening scene of the film is an animal elementary school pantomime that explains how they accomplished this, and variously psychologized scenes of instruction on this topic recur throughout the film. Predatory animals — the young Judy Hopps (Della Saba), a plucky bunny, tells us from the pantomime stage — were once “savage” and violent but have now seen the error of their ways. Relations between predators and prey are no longer made difficult by the uncomfortable fact of the former eating the latter, and all live in peace in the city of Zootopia. Unlike Utopia, which announces its displacement or non-placement with its very name (from the Greek ou, meaning “not,” and topos, meaning “place”), Zootopia is as real as real can be, at least within the highly colored world of the film. Zootopia is where one goes to see life as it’s meant to be lived.
It’s also where one goes to make it, as we learn when the adult Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) heads to the big city to become its first rabbit police officer. The mise-en-scène of the film doesn’t much resemble some gauzy medieval painting of that moment in Isaiah when lions lay down with lambs; one doesn’t hop on a train to Zootopia hoping to chill. No, Zootopia is a place of striving, work, ambition, and desire. This accords quite nicely with the neoliberalized message of self-empowerment that is at the heart of most millennial children’s entertainment. As Disney puts it on its official website for the film, the city of Zootopia is “a melting pot where animals from every environment live together — a place where no matter what you are, from the biggest elephant to the smallest shrew, you can be anything.” Judy Hopps is our test case for this principle. Of course, the outcome of this test is never really in question; despite occasional setbacks, she ultimately overcomes the speciesist prejudices of her instructors at the police academy and her colleagues in the Zootopia PD — most prominent among them, the burly Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), her Cape buffalo commanding officer. In the end, he, like everyone else, is forced to concede that a rabbit can go toe-to-toe with any other animal. “No matter what you are … you can be anything.” It was never really in doubt, but still, Judy Hopps can achieve her dreams.
There is something very satisfying about this, all professional cynicism aside. For one thing, it is refreshing to see another film emerging from The Mouse House that, like Frozen and Brave before it, features a strong young woman protagonist who doesn’t immediately fall prey to a marriage plot. Indeed, there is no romance of any sort for Judy Hopps. She is a career woman through-and-through, a dedicated detective who solves the case and saves the day on more than one occasion. Even here, the conventions of police procedurals and gangster cinema to which Zootopia pays obvious homage are turned delightfully on their head. I honestly do hope that when children play with their Judy Hopps plush toys ($14.95 on disneystore.com), they are inspired to dream differently about their futures, cultivating habits of utopian thinking as they rehearse cutting retorts to playground bullies in the safe space that Judy’s tiny bullet-proof vest affords.
The larger canvas of the film, however, is a fascinating muddle. The complete absence of human characters allows for an allegorical reimagining of contemporary human society that is bound to be partial in some way. In a revealing Fusion documentary, Imagining Zootopia, which was recently released online, the Zootopia filmmakers make explicit their desire to build the film around the question of what they call “bias.” The result is a hodgepodge of overlapping relations of misunderstanding, stereotyping, and bad feeling. The predator-prey divide is of course primary, but predators — even though they are a small minority of Zootopia’s population and have been discriminated against for their allegedly ill-suppressed propensity for violence — occupy many seemingly non-token positions of prominence and authority, including the mayor’s office and several high-ranking roles within the police department. At the same time, Judy Hopps — and the mayor’s neglected second-in-command, a female sheep named Bellwether (Jenny Slate) — are much maligned for being small and ostensibly puny animals who cannot compete with predators or larger prey animals like Chief Bogo. Judy in turn harbors stereotypes about predators, especially foxes, and her inevitably cathartic moment of moral crisis follows on the heels of inflammatory remarks she makes about predator biology. These remarks alienate her friend Nick (Jason Bateman), a con artist with a heart of gold who happens to be a fox, and who has his own traumatic childhood memories of being taunted with a muzzle by prey animals who wouldn’t let him join their Cub Scout troupe. And on and on it goes. In a different conceptual universe, all this might be taken as an exploration of the ways in which different regimes of oppression overlap and tangle. But in effect what we are left with, as Nico Lang argues on Consequence of Sound, is “the kid’s version of Crash,” an ultimately sanguine disquisition on the idea, lifted right out of Avenue Q, that “everyone is a little bit racist.”
In other words, Zootopia advances a sublimated theory of power that is strangely conservative, and — perhaps not so strangely — fundamentally allied with the project of economic neoliberalization. After a humiliating stint as a traffic cop, Judy Hopps is assigned to the case of a group of predators who have suddenly gone “savage,” which in this anthropomorphized universe means ripping off their clothes, dropping to all fours, and attacking other animals. It turns out that this crisis of respectability was engineered by the unassuming Bellwether, a champion of rabbits and mice who has dosed the predators with a weaponized narcotic that returns them to a “primitive” state of bestial violence. In order to bolster her own political prospects, Bellwether has engineered an interspecies crisis of what 1990s Clintonites called “super-predators” run amok. This is very close — if we pursue the allegory to its political ends — to alleging that the state has manufactured crises of, say, black masculinity in order to whip up the white public-safety vote and secure its own legitimacy. Now that would be an interesting intervention, if the film took us all the way there. And it really almost does.
Imagining Zootopia reveals that the creative team initially thought all predators in the film would be required by the Zootopian state to be fitted with what they called “tame collars”: neuro-inhibiting devices that kept them in line. That profoundly dystopian vision of predator-prey relations — closer to the animalized logic of genocide in Art Spiegelman’s Maus than anything that Disney or Pixar have cooked up so far — would have been much more adequate to the subject of contemporary racism. What Zootopia actually does, however, is write off Bellwether as an outlier, a bad apple, a (forgive me) black sheep, and promote in her place Judy Hopps’s can-do gumption and moral rectitude. Judy achieves her dreams “the right way” in Zootopia’s “melting pot” of fantasy diversity by playing by the rules. Like all neoliberal fables, Zootopia offers up a crypto-critique of affirmative action at the same time as it blames the state for the problems affirmative action might be expected to remediate. Bellwether bears the brunt of criticism on both fronts, and Judy is left in the clear, free to make her path-breaking way forward on the basis of merit alone.
To put it differently, the gospel in Zootopia is the free market. This is never clearer than at the end of the film, when the pop star Gazelle (Shakira) gives a concert for newly reunified Zootopia, predator and prey alike. It’s important not to discount the radical potential of an ecstatic politics forged in a communal relationship to art. But Gazelle’s music is really nothing more than the commodity-form of community, the economic cipher of an allegedly just society to which all have equal access. In Zootopia, the high-water mark of freedom is the freedom to consume. Ultimately, the film does nothing to unsettle the fixity of categories of predator and prey. Indeed, race is paradoxically rebiologized in the film by equating it to species. And the old bugaboo of racist ideology, miscegenation, is something with which the filmmakers simply won’t engage. (To date, only Donkey and Dragon from the Shrek franchise have crossed that line and dared to make bispecies babies.) Many have noted that Judy and Nick are something of a cinematic apology for the blackface-minstrel caricatures of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox in Disney’s appalling early effort, Song of the South. But Judy’s and Nick’s is also a gender-inverted noir love story: the gumshoe detective and her streetwise fox fatale. The fact that they never take the romantic plunge, as their relationship subsides into buddy-cop conventionality, is proof enough that what is at stake here is not the undoing of race but an economized fantasy of racial coexistence.
There are limits to what a children’s film can do with sex; it’s important to Disney to maintain a PG rating. Finding Nemo would have been a very different film if Nemo’s dad simply changed sex, as clownfish do, when his wife died, in order to mate with his son. Zootopia seems almost to satirize itself when it stages a scene at an animal nudist retreat in which genitalia — despite Judy’s apoplectic embarrassment at supposedly seeing them — are eerily elided. Budding veterinarians who hope to learn anatomy from Disney will be highly disappointed. Animals, the animated TV series now midway through its first season on HBO, demonstrates no such compunction to give naughty bits a wide berth. The animal speculators in HBO’s marketing department understand that their brand is Disney-After-Dark, a debauched DIY rendition of everything films like Zootopia can’t do or say. A rat dying from mistaking poison for rodent Viagra asks his date to sit on his face. A transgender New York pigeon seduces a macho man pigeon from New Jersey. And a swan and a Canadian goose have interspecies sex in a bathroom stall. This is animal speculation at its most gleefully profane — almost as perverse as Isabella Rossellini’s wonderful (and educational) video-performance series Green Porno.
Animals is set in New York City, and the titular characters are very much in and of that space: subway rats, dogs in the park, cats in tony apartments. Unlike Zootopia, Animals is invested in conceiving of animal life at the margins of human civilization, speculating on the nature of animal experience as the adjunct of our own. Interestingly, this serves to flatten out the specificity of the animals themselves — as does the fact that the two main characters in each episode are voiced by the series’s co-creators, Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano, who invariably come across as chuckle-mumble neurotics flummoxed by their circumstances. “Phil” and “Mike” are largely the same from episode to episode, no matter what kind of animal they are; guest actors, like Adam Scott, who plays the Canadian goose with his trademark straight-man calm, or Aziz Ansari, who brings a manic energy to a racist purebred dog with a swastika tattooed beneath his fur, puncture the equilibrium in satisfying ways. Still, the series — character development and short-term story arcs aside — is largely in the idiom of the homemade nature documentary, like a comedy-hipster version of Snoop Dogg’s Plizannet Earth and Planet Snoop.
There are moments of real brilliance in Animals, particularly when Matarese and Luciano extend themselves beyond the animals we know better and love more. There is a bit with bed bugs that is bloody and delightful. And the short segment that shows a neophyte moth getting high on neon light for the first time is in the finest tradition of animal speculation, a psychedelic act of sympathetic imagination worthy even of the iconoclastic biologist Jakob von Uexküll. Unfortunately, there is not much of a market for animal fictions like these. Animals’s animal speculation might not really pay off. Merchandising is a long shot. But these occasional moments are still worth it, if only to impel us to take our curiosity further, imagining more deeply the world of the animals all around us, however alien they are.