Philosophy and Movie Tuesday

Zootopia is more than a good movie. Zootopia is so moving to me, it aches. In this feeling, I know I’m not alone. As I write this, there is over 700 million dollars worth of proof that it has touched millions of people worldwide. This is something no one anticipated. Out of nowhere, Zootopia has emerged to touch us in a way that goes far beyond what we might expect from even an inventive and artfully told animal fable (of which Zootopia most certainly is).

This is because it is not really about the adventurous police caper.

Zootopia is a movie about possibility.

judy nick salute
© Disney

Zootopia’s true story is about two, dare I say real, characters, each who enter the story with their own views and blind spots and barriers and foibles, and who sail the messy seas together. Over the course of the film, Judy and Nick travel way more than the metaphorical 211 miles between Bunnyburrow and Zootopia. Through their escapades together, their personal journeys are immense.

That is the true heart of Zootopia. We bear witness to the deep and profound insights and growth that rocks each of them to their very core. To be clear, these are not superficial shifts, minor adjustments of character or the learning a quick and easy slogan. They are foundational. The Nick and Judy who dance together at the end of the movie are not the same Nick and Judy as those we met at the beginning.

Furthermore, everything is on display. Zootopia is not necessarily a “positive” movie. It presents no magic moments. Throughout the movie, they confront all manner of existential and philosophical barriers, and they deal with them. Judy and Nick earn their transformations because they work for it. They make serious mistakes. They take risks. They let themselves be vulnerable. Nothing is ever guaranteed. They fail, and they go back.

Consider what we see get transformed in the movie: hidden bias, personal barriers, incidents from our past, broken friendships, societal and peer pressures, and fear. We witness amazing examples of taking ownership, of apology and forgiveness, of empathy, of trust, and that anything can be worked out in communication. We are reminded that we can fail without being a failure, and that we are never stuck in who we think we are, or who we think we have to be. We can always choose, and we can always change.

Through it all, we follow Judy and Nick as they develop one of the most incredibly authentic friendships ever depicted in cinema, one forged in understanding and, by the end of the movie, in deep acceptance of each other.

All of these, all in one movie. That’s… beyond remarkable.

Here’s the thing: We are hungry for this.

We want to journey, like Nick and Judy, towards the best versions of ourselves we can be.

We want to be dragged, like Nick, kicking and screaming if need be, back to our own idealism of a world that can work for everyone, with no one left out.

We want to know, like Judy, how to handle a world that doesn’t always fit our hopes and dreams.

We want to find friendships where we truly feel at home.

We want to make a difference in this world.

This is it. This is what we all want in life. These are the hopes and desires we all share. And this is why this movie calls to us so strongly. It not only touches our shared humanity, but celebrates it.

And that is why Zootopia has captured our hearts so strongly, in so short a time. Zootopia is a clarion call towards those aspirations that we have hidden and buried under resignation and overwhelm.

I’m going to make a bold declaration here: Zootopia is more than just a good movie, Zootopia is IMPORTANT.

Stories are powerful. Everything we know about ourselves, and about the world, is codified into stories. Some of the stories we make up ourselves. Most of the stories, we hear… and then make up something about. Often, our mind doesn’t know which are which. This conflux of narratives gives us our experience of life, and they tell us who we are, and who we are not, tell us who others are, and how others are not, and tell us how the world is, and how it is not.

That’s why, when we see these kinds of possibilities and are shown wonderful examples of powerful transformation on the screen, they all becomes a part of us. Possibility begets possibility. When possibilities are shared, they create space for possibilities for others.   They alter our worldview, and thus, our world.

As we journey along with Nick and Judy, as we witness and experience their trials and triumphs, we too gain access to this world of possibility.

Equally important, we get to see that the path is not an open road. It is one that is littered with pitfalls and upsets. We equally get to see that is OK. That is how it goes. Not everything is fatal. We can clean it up. We can make amends. We can forgive. Things take time.

Sometimes, there will be strong and entrenched forces in our way. That too is OK. That’s how it goes. We can regroup and continue. Rome (and Zootopia) wasn’t built in a day, nor did it fall apart in a day. There is history there. It takes time to write new history.

And then, there lies the biggest barriers before us: those within ourselves. We’re all faced with incidents and failures in our past, our weaknesses, and our nagging, persistent, unproductive ways of being. And yet… those weaknesses are just another reminder of something. “Hey, glass half full,” says Judy in her speech at the end of the movie, ” we have a lot in common!”

In both our desires and our faults, we share a common bond.

We need this kind of storytelling. We need this kind of experience. Stories are potent because they can create experiences as real as our own. Zootopia seeps deeper into us than we might expect because it talks directly to us, entering our imaginations with grace and honour and respect. Zootopia possesses a visceral intimacy that bypasses our knowledge and our “yeah, buts…” to dance directly with our human spirit.

The creators at Disney didn’t have to do this, of course. They didn’t need to write this kind of insightful and profound meditation on life. They could have made a silly movie filled with animal hijinks and called it a day. That they didn’t speaks to their commitment to what storytelling can achieve.

The brilliance of Zootopia is in these two main characters. Judy is us. Nick is us. They start in very different spaces and places. Neither is a paragon of the animal kingdom. But in the end, they achieve remarkable wisdom, together.

Zootopia reminds us what who we truly want to be, opens us up to possibility, and shows us the path to take while giving us the gumption to see it through along the messy road.

That is everything great storytelling can do.


Read all entries in this series:  The Zootopia Meditations


Architecture Monday

More Zootopian architecture!  Judy’s train ride into the city is the perfect introduction to the city and its many environmental districts, and shows off lots of the differing styles and forms of buildings, with the challenges and opportunities of designing for animals with different sizes and proportions and needs:

(The clip is in Japanese, so there’s no spoilers if you haven’t seen the film, unless you speak Japanese…)

Philosophy Sunday

Continuing (here are links to Part 1 and Part 2) with the moments of transformation in Zootopia, we come to the most prominently featured (prominent insofar as a driver in the storyline) area of them all: hidden bias.

And Judy is as full of it as her antagonists.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. Even though she’s battling Chief Bogo’s views of her, she’s just as susceptible. Even though she just witnessed overt discrimination in the ice cream parlour, she calls Nick a fine dad and articulate. Ouch. She pretends she’s over Gideon’s treatment of her as a young bunny, and that her parent’s warnings don’t hold sway over her, yet, there she is, with that, saying that. And then, it blows up even more spectacularly at the press conference.

Inside our biases, things make sense. It makes sense to Judy that the predators are all that much closer to reverting to their feral ways. That they could go feral, at any time. Notice how she says what she says at the press conference – she says earnestly and with clinical “certainty.” She doesn’t realize that she’s speaking from a biased world view. “I just stated the facts of the case! I mean, it’s not like a bunny can go savage,” she says. In that moment, it seems… correct.

I cannot give enough props to the directors and the writing team for this. Because the brilliance here is the very important demonstration of how we are all full of hidden biases. All of us. Even when we don’t think we are. Even when we may be battling biases ourselves. Even when we may outwardly rail against them. Even when we’re offended if someone accused us of having them. That is, of course, why they’re called hidden biases.

More importantly, however, Judy’s biases are also a demonstration of the fact that we not bad people, or stupid, or evil, or damned for having them. Often, we get them completely without conscious intent. It’s just what we do. We get biases.

And when we discover them, we can do something about them.

For Judy, she gets to see the impact of her bias. Nick leaves her. The city devolves. Fear ensues. She resigns and goes home. It takes her a little while to know what to do. Gideon’s apology opens up the space. Realizing that bunnies CAN go savage opens up another. And as she jets off into action, she recognizes that the first thing she needs to do is apologize to Nick. It would be inauthentic and a huge disconnect to try to repair the rend in the city without first healing her friendship with Nick.

We cannot have peace between nations if we do not have peace with our friends and family.

Words will forever fail me in trying to emphasize how profound the scene at the Natural History Museum is, on so many levels. It is the ultimate culmination of both the story threads and, more importantly, of Judy and Nick’s philosophical journey. That Judy let Nick take her neck between his teeth is an expression of just how completely Judy has let go of her bias. And this moment, more than Judy’s (and Nick’s!) acceptance on the police force, more than the city enjoying the concert at the end, more than anything, this moment is the example that lets us know just how completely hidden bias can be overcome. Judy might have won the police over with her success. Everyone may behave around Gazelle because it’s a good time, or a heavy security presence. But here, it’s just Judy and Nick, and Judy was willing to put her life on the line because she transformed her bias and let herself trust a fox.

Her willingness becomes a metaphor of what’s actually possible for us in the world. If that level of “logical” and even ingrained bias can be transformed, then what can’t? Nothing is intractable. We can come overcome, and we can come together.

The truth shines through: we are not objects, set in stone. Neither are the problems in the world, and neither are the “that’s just the way things are” views that hem us in. Judy is us. Nick is us. They’re good people who had hidden biases. But there’s no shame in that. Through their journeys of transformation we realize that we, too, can take those steps, and that we, too, can make our world a better place.

It’s not always easy. And we may screw up. But we can get the impact of it. Delve deep. Deal with it. Complete it. Go forward and clean things up. Apologize. Forgive. And create a bond and a world that was even stronger than before.

“I thought this city would be a perfect place where everyone got along and anyone could be anything. Turns out, life’s a little bit more complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker. Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes. Which means, hey, glass half full, we all have a lot in common. And the more we try to understand one another, the more exceptional each of us will be. But we have to try. So no matter what kind of person you are, I implore you: Try. Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you. It starts with me.  It starts with everyone.”

(For more posts exploring the philosophy of Zootopia, click here)

Philosophy Friday

Continuing our Zootopia contemplations from Tuesday (click to read part 1) on the profound moments of transformation…

Nick, in that moment under the bridge, chooses to join the ZPD. It embodies everything he wants to be as a Junior Ranger: Be loyal. Be helpful. Be available to others.

Judy, however, also makes a choice. It’s one that is less obvious, from the outside, for she too chooses to join the ZPD. It isn’t, however, that she simply chooses to re-join the ZPD – she is choosing, for the first time, as an adult, to be an officer.

Since the day Gideon attacked Judy and belittled her dreams, Judy was determined. No matter what, she was going to join the police. She had made a decision: “I will show them. I will become the first policerabbit, and everyone will be proud and excited and awed.” That decision gave her drive, it gave her tenacity, it pushed her onward when everything (including herself) was in the toilet. But it gave her no freedom. It was not a possibility, it was a position. Her identity was forged around it.

She would become a member of the ZPD to prove Gideon wrong.

She wasn’t in it for herself. It originated from her childhood dream, yes, but after the fairground scuffle it became about Gideon, about her parents, about the views of the world. Even if she had succeeded, there would be little satisfaction from it. That it wasn’t turning out as she’d hoped, that not everyone was cheering her parade, hit her really hard.

The scene where Judy turns in her badge is heart wrenching. It’s a beautiful, artistically speaking, with a soft voice delivered with unimaginable depth by Ginnifer Goodwin, but for Judy it is the crushing end of her dream. Her whole identity crumbles beneath her, and her listlessness back home shows how much she’s lost her sense of who she is.

And then… she meets the adult Gideon, and the magic we explored on Tuesday begins. By the time she is on the other side of the bridge, hugging Nick, she’s at her point of inflection. As painful as the ordeal has been, it has provided her with an opportunity. Gideon’s apology, and her forgiveness, cleared away her decision. She no longer is driven to prove him wrong. Her apology, and Nick’s forgiveness, lets her know she has someone who has her back. She no longer has to be independent. She is given a clean slate. She doesn’t HAVE to be a policerabbit, she doesn’t have to prove herself. She’s free to choose.

In that moment, the authentic part of her chooses, and she, for the first time, as an adult, chooses to be an officer. Being an officer is totally in line with who she always wanted to be: loyal, helpful, and available to others.

Someone once shared with me a story about a triathlete, who had been a long-time competitor. She did the things a triathlete would do: she trained diligently every morning, she entered several races every year, she tracked her progress, and in the end she was quite successful in races. Being a triathlete was her thing. She told people she loved it.

One day though, she saw, for herself, what had her be so ambitious and so single-minded when it came to triathlons. Many, many years ago, through circumstances that involved her father, she had made a decision about herself and about being a triathlete. She remembered that she had started training soon thereafter, and how quickly it had grown to the prominent place it now held in her life. How all encompassing it had become. The memory was vivid. But as she sat there, in that moment of insight and clarity, she put aside her decision a clearing appeared. She had a choice: to swim/bike/run, or not to swim/bike/run.

She chose to be a triathlete.

It may seem like there’s no switch there, or that it was the easy choice, but what was amazing for her was, as she put it, her sense of life. For the first time she enjoyed the training, the competitions, in a way that she never knew was possible. She enjoyed the whole world of being a triathlete in a way that she hadn’t realized before how much that she hadn’t been enjoying it. To the outside observer, nothing seems to have changed , but for her, the whole world had shifted. She felt fulfilled. She got to express herself fully through the act of the triathlon. And her performance elevated rapidly.

That’s what Judy got. She got to choose to be an officer, and though it looks the same as the decision she made as a kit, it’s not. She gets a level of fulfilment, of self expression, of flexibility, and of authentic engagement that was not available before.

When Judy and Nick sit on the same chair in the ZPD HQ, they’re happy not only because they’ve attained a goal they wanted in life, but because they are being who they want to be. Through their escapades they created clearings for themselves, chose new paths, and launched forth to pursue those paths.

Being an officer is the embodiment of who they, at their core, have created themselves to be.

officer hopps wilde

Click here for part three!

Philosophy Tuesday

Zootopia’s story has a splendid philosophical core, including profound moments of transformation. I’m still floored by it. There’s no way this wouldn’t get the deep dive here on Philosophical Tuesday. The last third of the film is nonstop inspiring and moving. And it starts with a simple apology.

Right after Gideon apologies for his actions as a youngster, and Judy acknowledges that she too knows about being a jerk, the two of them share a moment and a smile. It’s an absolutely lovely little touch. It is only brief moment, and it’s a moment held in silence, but that silence and their look speaks volumes: “this is complete for us now.” Boom. And this moment of completion is equally liberating for the both of them. Yes, both. Completion removes the unknown and hidden constraints from our view of life, constraints that also work to keep our identities set in place. For Judy, what is released may be somewhat obvious. For Gideon, in that moment, what is wiped clean is whatever guilt he may have been carrying since then. His actions that have been limited by trying to “make up for” that incident, or to “disprove” to both to himself and others that he is not a terrible fox, and even the limitations on his sense and experience of himself that stem from that voice in his head that says “I am a bad fox (and I have the evidence to prove it)”, they all get set aside. From that moment onward, he is able to create freely from within that clearing.

We don’t hear from Gideon again in the movie (or was he in the ending credits?*), but he’s set free.

Completion creates a new realm of possibility – not just a single possibility, but a whole expanse of possibilities. And to what extent those possibilities can reach we’ll see that with Judy. But in a moment, because first, we also have Nick’s transformation, out of Judy’s apology.

I really love how Nick and Judy’s history is essentially the same. Both were bullied and attacked due to their species and their ambitions, but both made vastly different decisions based on that incident. And their lives then went in vastly different directions. When Nick fills out the application in the police station, he’s indicating a desire, a wish, a hope, for something new… but it’s still built on the shaky ground of the past. It’s a wish that gets quickly dashed by a few words from a new found friend, words that reaffirm all he knows about the world, and about his place in it. It’s not only “I’m a predator, sly fox,” it’s also, “I can never trust anyone. I’m not wanted.”

Judy’s apology to Nick not only cleans up the mess she made between them at the press conference, but also allows Nick to complete for himself all the hangings on from the incident as a Junior Ranger. Judy was, of course, not there, those many years ago. But her apology creates the space for Nick to re-evaluate the decisions he made, to reconsider his world view and the identities he took on, and to, like Judy and Gideon, set them aside and create freely in that clearing. From the moment Judy begins apologizing, Nick has chosen. The very fact she’s returned and is willing to take that kind of responsibility is the catalyst. Nick begins to walk under the bridge (“Like water under the bridge”) and the further he goes, and the further Judy gets into her heartfelt apology, the bigger the clearing becomes. When he’s firmly on the other side, it’s complete. What he chose earlier in filling out that application comes rushing back in, and he chooses to not only be friends with Judy (and she joins him on the other side of the bridge), but chooses to create a new Nick from the world of possibilities that have opened up: to be caring, to be dedicated, to make a difference, to be a fully-grown Junior Ranger. All now created upon a solid foundation.

Every scene after that, he puts himself, without hesitation, in between danger and Judy.

We come now to that scene in the pit at the Natural History Museum… and wow.

judy nick neck
© Disney

Besides using the literal history of animal relations as a backdrop – a clever touch – the trust that Judy places in Nick, and more specifically, his muzzle, is remarkable. Even though it was ‘play acting’. Let’s be clear. From someone who, while talking big to her parents and only took the fox repellent to ‘make them be quiet’, then ensured she took it with her on the first day and never stopped carrying it with her, for that someone to let a fox take her by the neck like THAT – is huge. The clearing from Gideon’s apology (and in seeing her parent’s own growth in their working with Gideon), and from Nick’s generosity in forgiving her, has her be willing to put that level of trust in him. Amazing.

And, as before, it’s amazing for the both of them. The Junior Ranger kids had said “If you thought we’d ever trust a predator without a muzzle, you’re even dumber than you look.” They used the word trust specifically. For a prey species to be willing to give that level of trust to Nick intensifies and seals the completion.

What an insanely powerful moment in the story. It’s the crux of the caper coming to an end while also, and I’d say even more poignantly, being a huge moment for Judy and Nick, showing the depth of their transformations.

It should not be forgotten or omitted that these completions and transformations are also brought on by the other side of apology: forgiveness.

Judy goes from pretending everything is behind her and instead empathizes with Gideon. Nick could have held his grudge against Judy’s words, but he doesn’t. He too grants her the error, and forgives her. They both could have stayed right in their convictions, but they chose to take the plunge to see what’s possible. And through that generosity, miracles happen.

Given my recent musings about apologizing, and the amazing power therein, I am beyond tickled that along comes a movie with not just one, but these TWO amazing scenes of apology. I say again that these scenes are some of the most adult things I have seen in a movie in a long time. Period. Mr. Rogers would be proud (see 4:10 of this video). I give super kudos to the writers and directors for putting them in.

These scenes are amazing on so many levels. We have characters choosing to take responsibility and to apologize, and how they apologize are pretty darn good examples of how to. We have forgiveness and empathy. And we witness how the apologies alter the lives of the characters forever, as a good apology can.

It doesn’t always take apologies to cause transformation, but in those instances where an apology is appropriate, they can make a world of difference. And often we never know to what level our apology might provide a clearing for another, just as Judy’s did for Nick.

To all who worked on Zootopia and for the work that went behind it to craft a film with such an amazing intricate philosophical core, thank you.

In a film about anthropomorphic animals, you have taught us plenty about our humanity.

Continued in part 2 here!

* If he wasn’t in the credits, wow, imagine how incredible it could be if he was. Imagine Gideon dancing with Judy’s parents, or, even more powerfully, dancing with some of Judy’s siblings, all having a good time…

Architecture Monday

It’s #Zootopia #Architecture day! As with just about everything in this film, the architecture is dripping with exquisite detail and intention. Winston Churchill’s quote “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us,” is perhaps no more exemplified than the architecture in Zootopia.

© Disney
© Disney

In that vein I love these two sketches (by Matthias Lechner, who was the art director for environments) for the police station, a location we visit often during the film. Firstly, that first sketch makes me chuckle as it mirrors in some ways my own design process (iterations upon iterations of designs). We’ll return to that sketch in a moment.  The second sketch is a great illustration of the many elements that architects bring together in the design of real buildings: functional concerns, context, societal aspirations, aesthetic and artistic elements, and the spatial feel and the experience we will feel when we are in front of or inside the building.

In this design of the police station the big strokes of the Zootopian architecture direction is on display, namely the incorporation of natural elements and forms.  It is anthropomorphized animals of all types who are shaping these buildings, they have all brought their viewpoints (including differing heights and sizes!) and their affinities to the construction of their buildings.  From the sharp minimalist features of the frozen poles, to angular cliffs, to undulating dunes, to the rich forests, to even underground dwellings, there is both an affinity both for what’s familiar as well as the cross pollination between the species, creating new styles and new aficionados.

We as humans are, of course, also no stranger to this; many buildings have been inspired and informed by our natural landscape. The columns of the Sagrada Familia and the forms of the Canadian Museum of Civilization are just two of countless examples.  As well, as our cultures traded and interacted and ultimately have come to live together, we too have shared forms and styles and ideas.

The other great thing to see in these sketches is the change in the feel of the buildings from that first sketch to the second, based on how the story itself was evolving. The original tone for the film was a much darker one, leading to a more utilitarian and imposing edifice. When the movie shifted to become what it was, the design also shifted towards a grander civic architecture. “Design is a signal of intention,” and the newer police station signals the intent behind the founding of Zootopia, that of creating a city where animals have come to live together in support and harmony. This grand civic gesture crafts forms that are worthy of the society they are trying to create. “Thereafter, our buildings shape us.”

Movie architecture can be loose with things like physics or the absolute needs of functionality, but the artists and architects in Zootopia did a good job of working through things and keeping it in the realm of believably. A wonderful job done!

Some more images:

© Disney

I think these tusk-based pillars make a great bridge design!

© Disney

Tree columns not unlike Sagria Familia.

© Disney

Love this very warren-like bunny housing.

© Disney

And the city proper! If you look closely, you can see the train line that Judy takes as she enters the city, passing through all the major districts. (Which is one of my favourite scenes in the movie… such an entrance, enhanced by the fact that I also love trains!)

These are almost all from the website of Matthias Lechner, go check it out, there is so much in there. It is such an indication of just how much thought, care, and interest they, the team, put into the world building for this film, and it shows through in the strength and the tight feel of the story.

Architecture is the context for our everyday, real, lives, just as much as it is the backdrop for movies. When we pay as much care to that which we build around us, we too can reap the same rewards.

Hoppin Wylde

My Zootopia mania continues. I’ve listened to “Try Everything” hundreds of times, I’ve been scouring the net for fan art, I’ve sought out interviews, turned the movie over and over and over in my mind. Seriously, I’ve not been this excited about a Disney film (pure Disney, not Pixar) since The Lion King, which took me equally by storm oh those so many years ago. And, while I loved me my Pixar films, even Ratatouille and Wall-E didn’t have me this obsessed. Given I saw TLK in the theatre some 8+ times, who knows what’ll happen here.

Thus far, though, it’s only been twice.  (Edit — I have now seen Zootopia 8 times in the theatre (!))

And I have more to add to my previous impressions… a continuation of my review… Continue reading