Zootropolis and the Modern Furry Aesthetic

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.

Maus_species

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.

96-pies2

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.

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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8 thoughts on “Zootropolis and the Modern Furry Aesthetic

  1. This focus on animal behavior as an integral part of furry performance really brings out the literal meaning of anthropomorphism: the giving of human form to the inhuman.

    However, there is an alternative way to conceptualize parts of furrydom which I do not believe to be insignificant: instead of anthropomorphized animals, they could be zoomorphized humans.

    This distinction is one reason I think that I sometimes feel apart from the fandom. As a child, I took an active disinterest in animal-focused stories and had no preference for cartoons. I first came to dabble in what is known as “anthromorphics” through aliens in science fiction, preferring coherent, aesthetic mixes of existing creatures to the monstrous medleys all too common. I think subconscious feelings of otherness caused me to relate to characters who, though mostly human in form, were essentially different in some way. For instance, I took Spock as a role model for a time.

    I only developed a particular like for animal-human mixtures after having encountered dragons of human intelligence in fantasy novels and encountering the likes of Yerf in an internet search for images of bipedal dragons (and despite the description of anthropomorphics as “funny animals,” which did not describe my interest at all).

    Perhaps oddly, it is through anthropomorphics that I came to be interested and to feel comfortable around real-life animals. I’ve also come to appreciate the role animal-play, in art or costume, can have in salutarily disrupting social boundaries. It opened my eyes to the nonhuman world around me already; I didn’t need to travel to the stars to find the Other.

    With this in mind, I can’t help but wonder how many people in the fandom identify with each concept: anthropomorphic animals and zoomorphic humans.

    1. I tend to think that furries are closer to zoomorphic humans than anthropomorphic animals, in that it’s the introduced animalistic traits that describe the “furry” aspects. But it can be seen either way, and of course there is no right or wrong way to be a furry.

      The problem with making any attempt at all to define furry, or furries, is that it inevitably excludes some furs. Furry is a broad church, and you’re a member if you decide you’re a member, and so there will be exceptions to even the broadest rule. I think we can do better than giving a shrug and saying that it’s impossible to define furry—exploring furry is what [a][s] is all about, after all—but it’s also not wrong to do so. Furry doesn’t have to be considered a concrete “thing”; it can simply be a decentralized group of people with some intersecting interests.

      I think that Flip’s definition of the modern furry aesthetic is the best working definition of furry I’ve read. But it can’t perfectly define furry or furries: nothing can. Exploring the difference been furries who think in terms of anthropomorphic animals, and those who think of zoomorphic humans, might well be another worthwhile approach.

  2. I would agree with Horse that the previews of Zootropolis suggest that this Film will be much closer to the modern Furry aesthetic than previous Disney films. What I find most interesting is that this may be the first sign that Disney is trying to find a way to deal with its long standing animosity towards the Furry community. Even if you do not know the full history of The Air Pirates or any of the artist purges of the 1980’s, rest assured the Furries and Disney have had a rough past. Do I expect anything “really furry” from Disney anytime soon?
    NO.
    But I would suggest Disney, similar to their most recent animated features and Marvel universe movies, is desperately trying to stay relevant to modern culture. Which means it inverses the fairy tale princess formula in Frozen, and went full costume action silliness in Avengers. Both of these made buckets of money and hit an entertainment itch people wanted, even though ‘conventional wisdom” at the time said these approaches were mistakes. Disney may have determined that keeping the stale style of anthropomorphic cartoons of the past just is no longer going to be marketable. They are going cherry pic the “animal” aspects which provide character insight and maybe some inside jokes while still keeping a PG-13 feel. Final prediction: Zootopia will end up similar in style and taste to Bill Holbrok’s “Kevin and Kell”, furry in reference, but mainstream in execution.
    Fair is fair.
    An analogy to relationship with Disney and Furry was once explained to me like this:
    Disney deals with furry like that uncomfortable stranger you purposely cross over to another street to avoid making conversation or eye contact with. If this is the previous case, maybe Zootroolis is at least Disney raising its head, saying hi and willing to wave across that street. They are at least acknowledging a prescience of furry, but still keeping a distance.
    Baby steps.
    My big interest with this film is going to be in looking deeply for any “lampshade hanging”, already seen in some of the backgrounds. Any piece of animation is deliberate, even if on screen for just a second or two. This has always been a place to place for artist to play games with the fans, may it be Easter eggs or fun character cameos which is more of a joke for artist and the devoted fan. We may also may see more furry style secondary characters because of a similar type of game. I personally think we are already seeing this with the character of Gazelle. She is the pop-star character in the film and is voiced and modeled off of Shikira. Already much of the supporting art is making her sexy, exotic and kinda racy. Okay, that just makes sense, given the character and person it is based off of. But the text and meta text seems to be playing a potential deeper game. Look at the art pieces Disney “leaked” (BTW, Disney leaks nothing, this was deliberate) where Gazelle is pictured on “Vanity Fur”. Goggle it if you have not. At first glance, fits for the character, even in a Disney film. But art aesthetic is also definitely furry. Also, read and the text because it to seems to be playing same game. Is this just Disney being “all the way” into character, or maybe seeing how much they can tease the dragon on this issue. Who knows? Just like Rocket Raccoon, it think this is a test to see how far they can push a character before people act negatively. Like Rocket, the world may find themselves wanting more of these characters than they thought. We are more than likely to see mainstream people accidentally finding themselves saying “Wow! that Gazelle is really hot! wait..uh..”
    Won’t that be fun to watch if nothing else?

      1. Um, i can… but at that stage I would be better off describing the full establishing of the furry aesthetic and its cultural context of Generation 1 furry, which is roughly 1977 to 1993. It’s a long complicated story.

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