Zootropolis (known as Zootopia in some countries) is an upcoming Disney film, led by the creative team behind modern fairytales such as Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph. It’s caused no small amount of excitement within furry, not least because of its embrace of the term “anthropomorphic”.
In furry circles, Zootropolis has few points of comparison. A similar buzz was created following the announcement of a 2004 Simpsonsesque comedy series called Father of the Pride, although in that case any excitement died quickly. While it’s reasonable to guess that Zootropolis will fare better than Father, both have something that makes them stand out—to furries—in a crowd of animated anthropomorphics.
They stand out because they display the ‘modern furry aesthetic’, as discussed by Flip writing for [adjective][species] earlier this year. He identified a shift in funny animal art in the late 1970s, where a group of cartoonists collectively found a different direction for anthropomorphics. That shift would be the seed that led to furry diverging from—and ultimately becoming distinct from—science fiction and other fandom groups.
The first comic identified by Flip as displaying the modern furry aesthetic is in 1977’s Vootie #3, in a short comic by Reed Waller titled Disguise Adroit de Plastique. (It is republished in The Erotic Art of Reed Waller, currently in print.) The comic starts in a typical counter-cultural manner, a bit like Fritz the Cat, but it takes a novel turn when the characters decide to forego the demands of the story and act like animals instead. “All that stuff about ideals might be okay if we were human, but we’re just Animals! All we understand is fucking, and mothering, and killing, and eating!“.
Flip sees this as a seachange in funny animal comics, because Waller’s anthropomorphic characters cease to be near human, and instead reject the idea—or at least aspects of the idea—of being human. The furry aesthetic considers acting like an animal to be instinctually honest. It’s the animal instinct that provides insight to the human condition.
Zootropolis embraces this idea by having human-like animals that have retained their animal instincts. In the first trailer, which introduces the Zootropolis universe, we see an exchange between a fox and a bunny.
The fox trips the bunny and the bunny turns out to be a policewoman. It’s a simple joke, setting up an expectation of who holds the power in the exchange, and then subverting it. So far, so Disney. Then a new variable is introduced: the lights go out, putting the fox at advantage because of an animal trait – good night vision. And then this is again upended due to the bunny’s superior hearing.
The animalistic traits of the Zootropolis characters are what makes this exchange recognisably furry. The furry characters are fundamentally human, in that they live in a version of our modern human world and do mundane things like wear clothing, have jobs, and so forth. The animal traits are a complication, just like the animal instincts (fucking, and mothering, and killing, and eating) of Disguise Adroit de Plastique.
This is in contrast with Zootropolis’s most obvious antecedent, Disney’s Robin Hood. The characters in Robin Hood are drawn in a similar style to those of Zootropolis, but they have very little in the way of animal characteristics other than their animal-person forms. The animators make the most of the most obvious animal features—eyes, ears, tails—to make the characters expressive, but that’s about it. Species and animal instinct are all but irrelevant.
A less obvious comparison is Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox. Towards the end of the film, Mr Fox and his squad of animal buddies find themselves trapped, and decide that they should make the most of their instincts and traits to survive: “we’re wild animals“. However the execution of these animal skills could hardly be less animalistic: each creature is identified by their Latin genus/species, and their escape is executed by a complex and structured plan, all to a military beat. This is a typical Wes Anderson joke: there is nothing wild or animalistic whatsoever about his wild animals. And when they’re done, Mr Fox renounces the risky animalistic ways of his youth and settles into very suburban, human domesticity.
Zootropilis’s gimmick, and the main source of the comedy in the trailers (and presumably the film), is the conflict between human and animal desires. It’s a fairly obvious route for comedy because it allows the creators to set up a simple expectation for behaviour based on one driver, then flipping it using the other. You can see this at work in its simplest form in Family Guy, as Brian the dog acts rational in one moment before sniffing butts in the next.
The challenge for works like Zootropolis is to explore this conflict without destroying the universe in which it takes place. The comedy and drama must be based on a world and characters that the viewer cares about. If the world is untenable, or if the characters change personality depending on the demands of the plot, the movie will become arbitrary and lack narrative tension. This is a real risk where the driving force behind the comedy (and narrative conflict) is inherently contradictory: on one hand, Zootropolis exists in a version of today’s human world; on the other hand it is ruled by animal instinct.
This is a risk for any story that mixes anthropomorphics with today’s world. Speculative furry universes, like sci-fi or fantasy worlds, tend to be more natural because the creator can pre-emptively address any narrative conflicts. When anthropomorphics are placed in the real world, problems can occur.
To give an example, Art Spiegelman’s widely acclaimed graphic novel, Maus, follows the story of a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, using mice to represent the Jews and cats the Nazis. It’s a simple but effective metaphor, simultaneously showing the vulnerability of the mice while clearly delineating the two groups. However it fails the moment that a character from another race is required. Spiegelman tries to address this by inserting himself (the cartoonist) into the novel wondering what do to, but in the end his justification is irrelevant to the story, and just makes it clear that his metaphor has failed.
The combination of anthropomorphics and today’s world tends to work best when the artist can avoid being backed into a corner, as happened with Spiegelman and Maus. A successful example is PIES by Ian King, a graphic novel (see the [adjective][species] review here). In PIES, the world barely needs to be explained at all, instead acting a backdrop allowing the artist to show an allegorical journey.
Of course, nobody expects Zootropolis to have any special insight to the human condition, or to tell a complex story. The trailers and teasers released to date give us a good idea of what to expect: an airy, easily consumable comedy.
The humour and story of Zootropolis will be driven by its central gimmick: the anthropomorphism, and the dissonance between human and animal traits. So our rabbit policewoman will rely on both technology and instinct to do her job. Species stereotypes will be subverted, so a cheetah will be fat, or a rhino will be delicate and sensitive, and somesuch. There will be snappy editing and a simple plot, driven by the conflict between the main characters’ human and animal sides. In the end someone will learn a lesson and the various plot threads will be tied into a neat bow.
And then the furries will make it weird.