(So. It’s spring break. Two-week-late post, and somehow by the end it’s all aboard the angst train again?)
Two Sundays ago, I mobbed with a small group of MIT furries to watch Zootopia, the recent highly-reputed Disney movie.
(Before anything else, first there were the previews. I was impressed that every single one of them — there were six or so — was about an upcoming movie featuring anthropomorphic animals front and center. Let me see if I can remember all of them… in no particular order, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Secret Life of Pets, The Jungle Book, Storks, Finding Dory, and Ice Age: Collision Course. Wow, I said, they know their audience.)
I went into the movie with a vague impression that Zootopia was more adult-oriented than most Disney films — not in the naughty way, but in general making a lot of jokes and invoking a lot of parallels that I think only adults might have the experience to get. My suspicions were confirmed a few lines into the movie, where there was a joke about taxes I cracked up at but can’t imagine that children a few years younger would have found funny. If you the reader haven’t watched it, I hope that was vague enough not to ruin the start for you.
(To be fair — and, uh, some parts of the internet are kind of big on this fact — the film also at one point enters a nudist colony. Fortunately (?), Animals Lack Attributes.)
Humor aside, I think the movie also deals with some weighty and nuanced themes, ones that would take more life experience to fully appreciate than the themes of most Disney movies. The social commentary is very clear. Possibly bordering on too blatant for my tastes — even though the whole movie is kind of Funny Talking Animals, there are some animal species for which it’s really easy to guess which human demographic groups they might be symbolizing, to the point where I can already imagine the other side of the debate. You won’t need a PhD in literature to figure out the parallels; you wouldn’t even need an AP English Literature class. But, I think, it still works. It’s like Animal Farm on training wheels.
Now putting apart the literary and moral values of the movie, it succeeds at the thing I care the most about: the plot starts and stays fast. There are a few spots where the movie sort of pauses to show us the world, and from my limited experience I’m usually the first to complain when movies do this and drag on for a long time, but I felt content with all of Zootopia’s pauses. In one instance early on, we get to look around the Zootopia universe while following a train for maybe one or two minutes, and the plot doesn’t advance, but the world-building was detailed and breathtaking and I didn’t feel like it was a waste of time at all. (The trope, usually for video games, is apparently called Scenic Tour Level aka Black Mesa Commute.) In another instance, after Judy’s first tough day on the police force, we spend quite some time in her room sort of idling with Funny Background Events, but I found it had a profound emotional function. Even the extremely prolonged sloth gag, which I was watching for the third time (the first was as a preview of the Star Wars movie I saw a while ago, the second was during a Disney presentation at MIT), was somehow still kind of funny. I remember looking at my watch during one other scene, later in the movie, that I had seen at the presentation, but it was more of just wanting to anchor my sense of time somewhere than wanting to know how far we had gotten. I never felt bored or wanted the movie to get on with the plot. I also did not see the plot twists coming (although TVTropes informs me that genre-savvy Disney viewers are getting bored of a certain type of plot development; guess I’m still not genre-savvy enough).
(Incidentally, it might enhance your enjoyment of this movie in a couple places if you’ve watched Frozen.)
As a minor aside, I also appreciate how Disney downplays the romance angle. Judy and Nick are the central characters and eminently shippable, but the plot is not about such a relationship and this lets it really focus on the other important things it’s conveying.
Trope-wise, I feel Zootopia also did a great job, with all the right Ironic Echos, Chekhov’s tropes (TVTropes lists six Guns, two Gunmen, and one Skill), and brick jokes. Many characters pulled off some brilliant gambits that were a thrill to watch, and although there were a couple turning points in the plot that felt like a lot of luck (most notably, gur jnl Whql svtherq bhg jung Avtug Ubjyref ernyyl jrer) I am satisfied that the happy ending was still well-earned. There are also apparently quite a lot of subtle clues and Freeze-Frame Bonuses; I’m ready to rewatch it already.
To lodge a complaint, though, there was one part of the movie (ng gur raq jura, qrfcvgr Avpx jnagvat bgurejvfr, Whql vafvfgf fur whfg unf gb trg gur ragver pneevntr gb gur cbyvpr nf rivqrapr vafgrnq bs frggyvat sbe gur fhvgpnfr, naq snvyf fcrpgnphyneyl) where my mental reaction was a sustained, unequivocal “What an idiot!”. I will admit after thinking it over, I can understand how the context and personality would have led to that choice (or maybe there was more precise justification in the on-screen dialogue I didn’t quite catch), and I guess it wasn’t a cop-out to drive the plot along in that it didn’t necessarily cause them to fail more than they would have otherwise; and also, the next couple of scenes were full of suspense and awesomeness that flushed it out. So it’s not a big deal and I guess I should not slap on Idiot Ball labels to things like this so freely. Maybe the fact that this is my biggest complaint is already a positive thing.
This is a good movie.
This post could have ended up being a straight-up movie review, but I have a vague sense that my audience wants more, since a couple people have wanted me to post something and this is not what I usually post, so… let’s talk about stereotypes.
One of the Aesops of Zootopia, according to TVTropes, is “Stereotyping is wrong”. Accurate, but it really doesn’t do the movie’s treatment justice. I could write a paper on that, but that would be boring literary analysis and also pretty much entirely spoilers. I could more generally write a post about stereotypes, and have attempted to; the draft has 1,671 words and no point. So fine, this is basically an excuse to cull that draft and attach it to something else so it doesn’t have to stand alone, while I also get to intersperse some absurd angsty parallels between a movie and my life. #synergy
But first, the elephant in the room?
I do consider myself a furry. There may be a stereotype attached to that; however, I suspect much of it is not actually so culturally prevalent, and thus effectively just a self-fulfilling prophecy that I’m only exacerbating by writing at length about it, so I’ll keep it snappy. I’m not a very active one; after all the time I give to academics, socializing, side jobs, and sleep, there’s not much left to indulge in such a hobby. But I am confident in calling myself one. Rawr! Dragons are cool!
Anyway, that wasn’t the big thing; I wanted to articulate a different stereotype I’ve previously sometimes felt boxed in by. It’s hard to capture briefly, but it’s felt to me that stereotypical Brian has been an awkward communicator who plays by the book and colors inside the lines to a fault. I’m not sure whether, if I can’t find a good phrase for the stereotype, that means it’s all mentally constructed by myself and not actually part of any generalizable social phenomenon at all, unlike the obvious things depicted in Zootopia. Maybe it’s just more complicated since I’m comparing my life to a movie with Funny Talking Animal characters who mostly just have the stereotype of their species. Maybe it’s an amalgam of many stereotypes with some constructive and some destructive interference. There’s the part where I’m a “math genius” or something!!1!1, the part where I’m a straight-A student, the part where I’m some kind of sickness-conquering hero, and the part where I’m just a nerd. I should say that (hayvxr ybgf bs navznyf va gur zbivr (this is probably a natural expectation and not a spoiler, but anyway)) I was roughly never bullied or ostracized for these traits and I was exceedingly fortunate to not be, but it still created mental blocks in many directions.
This is things like, when I was young, it would be funny when I said a remotely bad word because it was so out-of-character. (Subverts OOC Is Serious Business, or something.) More seriously, I think perhaps after apparently being so successful so consistently with grades and competitions, I was reluctant to try some wildly different things, citing vague ghostly excuses that I didn’t want to spread myself too thin, didn’t want to commit to any more things too deeply, didn’t want to change who I was any more… even though those excuses were more at fault in denying my true self than trying new things. I ignored my musical interests for a long time, missed out on a lot of opportunities to meet people, and didn’t think too much about how unwaveringly I found winged fire-breathing reptilian creatures to epitomize awesomeness.
It turns out a lot of rules and conventions and social boxes are unhelpful and arbitrary. If their usual justifications don’t apply to me, then I’m better off breaking them. And if (as is often the case, sadly) they’re just terrible overall, society needs people to break them.
Somewhat unfortunately for the dramatic effect of this post, seeing Zootopia did not suddenly motivate me to find my true self and transcend the box society placed me in. The process has been very gradual. But I think the movie at least represents a step in the process, as does MIT.
Some part of this is simply attributable to being in a new place. I remember talking often with a high school friend about “reinventing oneself” at college. It’s only possible because everybody is a stranger — nobody knows me well enough to have any assumptions about how I’d behave, so whatever I choose to do becomes my new normality. It’s a fresh start, completely up to me. (And so I am the master of red things and t’ai chi dance moves and ludicrously sized food storage containers, and I doodle a dragon profile with my name on nearly everything I put in a communal fridge. Maybe? Somehow I suspect I have no idea what normal set of behaviors I’ve ended up projecting.)
There’s more, though, in that I now live in East Campus, whose stereotypical resident builds things (to put it mildly), breaks things (ditto), and just generally has an individualistic streak (ditto again). This was not me before MIT at all. Or maybe it wasn’t on the surface, but deep down it was something I wanted to try to be. Breaking out by taking advantage of a different stereotype feels like the wrong thing to do because it’s like fighting fire with fire, as they say. And again, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve actually felt anybody pattern-match me against that crazy image… but the stereotypes might have been only an internal mental block, and so an internal counteracting force would be enough. I think it works.
I don’t think the Brian of a few years ago would have been confident enough to join this mob. Or dared to take advantage of the few hours between an internship interview and his flight back to make a completely unresearched and unplanned visit to UC Berkeley. Or just be willing go up to people at the end of career fairs and unabashedly ask, “Can I take some of your bags?”
And so it goes — like Judy after the long scenic train ride, I’ve found my place where “anyone can be anything”.
Now I just need to work out how to make this happen consistently without moving halfway across the world.