April 12, 2016

Zootopia: The Beautiful Secular Landscape

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.

Having gone as a family tonight to watch the movie,  I walked out at the end astonished at the baldly stated multi-level social message campaign that not only punctuated the storyline, but drove it, and in doing so, drove it into the ground as far as this bunny was concerned.

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.

Zootopia truly is a beautiful landscape. If you have seen the movie Her with Joachin Phoenxi, think of the Las Angeles represented there: modern, dreamy, sophisticated.


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.

At the outset the movie takes the predictable Hollywood line, in which the hero/heroine can follow their heart and dreams, look inside themselves, and be whoever they wish to be. That our rabbit teams up with a fox to solve the case simply drives us deeper into standard Hollywood fare.

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.

Without spoiling the plot (and this is less a film review than a cultural comment), the movie was a not-so-subtle statement on a number of social matters including two that stand out in particular.

  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 return 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 % majority non-predatory animals.

Interestingly, and as a reflection of small town creed, Judy’s parents, and several other townsfolk display the hokey, backwards thinking fundamentalist fear of the new, replete with Amens, “God blesses”, and my particular favourite “I have no idea what she was saying, I thought she was speaking in tongues!”

       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.

The final scene of the movie is at Gazelle’s concert and to say that the shaven chested tigers gyrated just that little too life-like for a kids movie is an understatement!


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.

This popular culture putsch is the companion piece to the educational/media putsch in the same direction; it’s simply the gaudily coloured side dish accompaniment to the rather stodgy diet of education department directives and multi-national “me-tooisms”.

Of course you could dismiss all of the above as the rantings of someone whose blog is pretty much a one-trick pony. You could, but for this one thing: When I gave my 14 year old daughter the one minute version of what I have just written above, as we walked outinto the foyer, she gave me the teenage girl eye roll and said “Duh, isn’t that obvious?”, before proceeding to point out three or four other social taboos the movie had raised that I had missed.

And yes, it’s obvious to her.  She’s well on her way to being a better cultural exegete than I. She is undergoing a level of textual criticism at school that I experienced only at uni. Indeed she will probably find herself in the media roles I craved as a young teen, but was incapable of landing.  But for those other fifty people watching, it’s not so obvious at all.

They 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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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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