Zootropolis

Zootropolis Bluray CoverAlternate Titles: Zootopia
Genre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin; Jason Bateman; Idris Elba; J.K. Simmons; Jenny Slate; Tommy Chong; Octavia Spencer; Nate Torrence; Shakira
First Shown: February, 2016
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the first bunny police officer in the city of Zootropolis. She fights for acceptance by trying to crack a missing mammals case, and she has a lead: fox con artist Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).

This was a strong film in many areas. The worldbuilding of Zootropolis was fun, with multiple anthro animal species living in various biomes in the city. Business hamsters get to work via tubes. Trains have doors of different sizes for the various animals. It created a complex and colourful world.

The story was also great. Judy has a mystery to solve, which touches on the prejudices running through Zootropolis. At the same time, her relationship with Nick develops from uneasy cooperation to close friends. There are a lot of fun side characters, including singer superstar Gazelle (Shakira) and terse police chief Bogo (Idris Elba).

Prejudice is a major theme of the story. Judy joins the police force as part of a diversity initiative. She has to be the best of the best at the academy, and is still assumed to not be good enough due to her species. The police station is clearly not designed for smaller animals, as the chairs are so tall she has to struggle to climb on them. The police world is literally not designed for her.

Judy and Nick both face discrimination for their species, and both have their own prejudices to overcome. For Judy, being a small prey animal means it’s assumed she can’t do the job. Bunnies are seen as cute, easily scared, and not very smart. For Nick, the assumed aggression of predators becomes a bad thing. It makes a lion a fearless leader, but it means a fox can’t be trusted. The story touches on microaggressions, from Nick touching a sheep’s wool, to animals shuffling away from species they don’t trust. Even Judy, who tries so hard not to be prejudiced, still holds beliefs that predators are naturally aggressive because it’s in their DNA. Nick becomes the exception in her eyes, rather than the example that disproves the rule. Prejudice is complicated, and I liked that the film embraces that.

However, unlike the real world, the discrimination can go both ways. Initially it looks as though larger predators, such as big cats and wolves, hold a privileged position. In some respects, they do. But it’s also possible for them to be on the receiving end of discrimination, which isn’t how the balance between privileged and marginalised works in the real world. It was believable in the context of the world of Zootropolis, but does mean it’s not a perfect metaphor for talking about real discrimination.

On the subject of things in the real world, there are some nods to that. Though being a woman isn’t a cause for discrimination for Judy, she stands out on that basis to the viewer. Her small size and strength are clearly a factor in deciding she’s unsuited to police work. Yet she succeeds anyway, despite the additional obstacles thrown in her way.

There are also Judy’s neighbours, who are both male antelopes (of different species) and presumably living together in a room a similar size to Judy’s. Though I took them to be a married couple, I figured if I looked it up there’d be something making it plain they weren’t. Turns out they share a hyphenated family name, so I will continue viewing them as a married couple.

Less great was the introduction to Clawhauser (Nate Torrence), the cheetah who staffs the main desk. The joke of him finding a half-eaten doughnut in his neck fat was something I could have done without. It’s a big misstep for a story tackling prejudice to fall into fat jokes. They could easily have stuck with laughs based on him being a superfan of Gazelle, which wasn’t poking fun at his weight.

I really enjoyed the film. Though I felt there were some weaker points, such as the fat jokes, it was a well-paced mystery with interesting character relationships. The world was beautifully done. There’d be a lot of potential for more stories in this world, but even if there aren’t any sequels, this was a satisfying story.

After Earth

After Earth Cover (UK)** The review contains some mild spoilers, but not the major twists or ending **

Humanity damages Earth so much it isn’t habitable for humans, so they leave for a new world. This is attacked by aliens who track humans by their fear pheromones. But the aliens are beaten back after the emergence of Cypher (Will Smith) – a solider able to feel no fear, so he’s invisible to them.

As the film begins, Cypher is close to retirement, and has a strained relationship with his son Kitai (Jaden Smith). In an attempt to patch things up, he takes Kitai on his last mission, but the ship is damaged and crashes on Earth. With Cypher badly injured, it’s up to Kitai to travel through the wilderness and send a distress call. In the process, father and son have to face their differences.

 

General Thoughts

After Earth got very bad reviews, but the premise interested me enough to watch it anyway. I really enjoyed it. It’s not the action-adventure the marketing suggests, but a story about a father and son working through their issues (with some action backdrop).

There’s a lot of attention to detail in this. All the characters speak an invented futuristic accent, showing how language has continued to develop. The design of the colony avoids the excess and waste of the modern world, and their energy comes from turbines, as might be expected from a species trying to avoid making the same mistake twice. The changes in colour and texture of Kitai’s suit is also a nice touch.

Add in that this is a rare science fiction film where non-white/people of colour get the starring roles, and there’s a lot to like. This is not one of those futures where anyone brown mysteriously disappears, possibly because the aliens think they’re extra tasty.

 

Ecology

Earth is initially abandoned because humans made it uninhabitable (for humans). It’s placed under a harsh quarantine, which states that everything on Earth is out to get humans. I was worried when that was announced that it’d be like the King Kong remake, where animals attack humans in a single-minded way. But the quarantine is an exaggeration.

Given my interest in animal behaviour in films, I liked the different animal reactions. The spider Kitai first meets has no interest in him and doesn’t bite him. The first larger animal is checking to see if Kitai is a threat. Each animal has its own reactions, rather than being generic meatbags who want to kill all humans at any cost.

Reading Moby Dick, and the themes of hunting it contains, is used to overlay this. In the absence of humans, Earth is thriving, and species driven to near-extinction are abundant. The implication is the quarantine isn’t really to protect people. It’s to protect Earth.

As a criticism, I’d note that the timescale isn’t long enough for some of the adaptations shown to have evolved. Mimosa-like plant movement wouldn’t be a quick thing, for example. But it’s probably better not to overthink how the climate and ecology is really working.

 

Women

There are also scenes with Faia (Sophie Okonedo) the mother and Senshi (Zoë Kravitz) the daughter, but the primary focus isn’t on those relationships. In mild spoilers, because you find it out shortly after the opening, it’s clear something happened to Senshi. I felt the family reaction to this was good, rather than it being a throw-away tragedy to activate the plot. What I mean by this is the plot isn’t tragedy occurs so let’s kill aliens and never mention it again (looking at you, Starship Troopers film). It’s tragedy occurs and family has to deal with the emotional fallout.

That said, I wish we’d seen more of the Faia’s reaction to this. There’s hints she’s struggling to deal with it, but it’s not fully shown.

One common Hollywood trope is most side characters are men. There were women and girls in the crowds, but they didn’t get lines. This may seem a small thing, but it does detract from the realism.

If there’s a sequel, I hope they deal more with the family as a whole. And mix up the side characters a bit.

 

Disability

There’s a point when a solider who lost a leg in a previous battle thanks Cypher for saving him. This has good and bad sides. The good side is it shows the man is enjoying his life after becoming disabled. He’s genuine happy that he got to go home to his family. Life after disability shouldn’t be a rare protrayal, but it is. It’s often shown as a fate worse than death (and therefore death as a mercy).

However, the thing about wanting to stand to salute Cypher was rather over-hammed. He should have been able to stand with crutches, but he didn’t have any. I see how they wanted to link it in thematically to Cypher’s later injuries, but still… he could have had crutches.

 

Conclusions

I suspect some of the negative response was it not being as actiony as suggested. Someone expecting a kill-all-the-aliens war film will be disappointed. But I’m suspicious some criticism comes from the invented accent. People could think, “This accent is new to me. It’ll take some time until I’m fully able to get the tone of the speaker’s voice and notice small differences.” Or they could think, “This accent is weird. They must be terrible actors.” The latter is unfortunately the one people go for a lot of the time.

This isn’t hypothetical, given that people with composite accents in the real world tend to get those sorts of criticisms. Like the situation where Amal El-Mohtar’s accent was described as feigned and false.

However, if you like family tales with science fiction settings, an attention to detail, and Will Smith, you may well enjoy this film.

Animal Behaviour in The Dinosaur Project

The Dinosaur Project (DVD Cover)

I love watching dinosaur films. As long as there are pretty dinosaurs, I’m not too picky about the script, acting or anything else. There is one thing I’m a stickler for though: realistic animal behaviour.

I’ve complained before about King Kong‘s handling of dinosaurs, where they go after the humans as snacks above all else (including their personal safety). Even Jurassic Park had issues, as the predatory dinosaurs were a little over-interested in eating people. The velociraptors were intelligent social animals who had been raised by humans… and the audience is supposed to accept that they have no emotional attachment to any human. The same goes for T-rex, who was intelligent enough to figure out how to take out the fence, but went after cars she saw every day, and knew contained her mini-rex friends who regularly brought food. “Because they’re dinosaurs” isn’t a reason*.

The dinosaurs also have a handy tendency to congregate in large mixed-species groups anytime the characters look out over the park.

When I watched The Dinosaur Project, I knew nothing about it, other than it had dinosaurs on the cover. It’s a relatively low budget production, using the self-filmed style made popular by The Blair Witch Project. Given all that, it was a surprise on the animal behaviour front.

The story follows a British team heading to the Congo in search of Mokele Mbembe. They’re assigned a conservationist, whose role is to guide them through the jungle and make sure they don’t damage any wildlife or habitats**. Unsurprisingly from the title, they find more than Mokele Mbembe.

The first species they meet is clearly an eats-people variety***, but does so due to having prior success at hunting humans. Later on, the humans outnumber them and resist, so the animals back off. In the real world, a show of resistance is usually enough to drive off wild predators, at least temporarily. It’s nice to see it happening in a film. If anything in this sequence, it’s one of the humans who does something mind-bogglingly stupid from an animal behaviour perspective, not the predators.

There’s also an example of intelligent predators, who don’t automatically view humans as food. Instead, they’re curious and a little cautious****. They can tell humans apart*****, which becomes important when not all the humans turn out to be nice.

But the thing that really stands out is most of the dinosaurs stay away from the humans. They’re heard in the distance, but most have no reason to get close. I liked that the face-to-face encounters were a limited range of species. These are wild animals who’ve had little contact with humans, and have a previous history of trying to stay away from humans******. This will likely be a point of criticism for the film, as people expect the dinosaurs to pose, but for me, sometimes it’s nice to see a little more realism.

My main complaint is true of most of the lost world genre, in that it sticks a little too closely to the fossil record. Continued evolution is mentioned (which is more than most), but I look forward to the day I pick up a film that has created all-new dinosaurs, with radically different behaviours based on their new environment. Though at the end of the day, it had dinosaurs eating sweets and people, and that’s good enough to cover most issues.

* Consider that plenty of intelligent predators are kept in captivity. Big cats and wolves are common examples. The majority of these animals aren’t aggressive towards their keepers, because they accept these humans as part of the family. It’s the less intelligent predators that cause most issues, as they may not be able to learn that humans are friends, not food. Intelligent dinosaurs are in the same league as mammals, birds and cephalopods, so would be expected to behave more like a tiger and less like a shark.

(Not that sharks are like the film version either. They don’t attack anything that moves and do tend to avoid people. But they’re also not that smart, so don’t expect a great white to have snuggly feelings about you being one of the family.)

** Though not the main topic of the post, I did like this nod to anti-colonialism. Unlike classics in the British explorer genre, their guide is not there to lead them wherever they want to go. She’s there to make sure they get in and out with as little damage caused as possible. I would’ve liked to see more character development time for her, but it has to be said, character development isn’t a strong point of this film as a whole.

*** The first species got my classification ponderings going, because they fly like pterosaurs, but those heads look very dinosaury. My best guess is they may be intended as early pterosaurs (the fossil record isn’t good for early pterosaurs and their ancestors, which leaves it open to interpretation).

**** Though not technically a dinosaur, the handling of terror birds in Prehistoric Park (a fake documentary program where they travel back in time to rescue soon-to-be-extinct animals) hit this one. Because humans were unfamiliar, the terror bird was curious… and after they started feeding it, grew actively friendly. In general, Prehistoric Park‘s handling of animal behaviour beats films hands down, but in fairness, it was written with that in mind.

***** Back to the Jurassic Park raptors, it would’ve come across far more realistically if they’d avoided/ignored most of the humans, and focused in on hunting down the main keeper (as he’s the one they associated as keeping them captive, and who wanted them dead). Telling individuals apart is an important skill for social animals, and does extend to how they view other animals (including humans). Why bother with a human stranger? They’re more trouble than they’re worth.

****** The reason they’re not staying away in the film is a spoiler, but if you’d like to know: ~~ spoiler warning: highlight to read ~~ The conservationist believes they’re being forced into contact with humans due to deforestation. ~~ spoiler end ~~

I, Robot and the Uncanny Valley

A photo of Sonny: He has a realistically shaped face and eyes, but his workings show through artificial skin.Discussions of the movie I, Robot tend to focus on how Asimovy it really was (or wasn’t). I was interested in another feature: how the uncanny valley was used in movie. This post talks a bit about what the uncanny valley is, how I, Robot used it and how that might relate to non-visual fiction.

** includes spoilers for I, Robot **

What Is The Uncanny Valley?

The uncanny valley is a theory about how people react to increasingly human-like things. The theory states that people become more emotionally positive to things as they become increasingly human. A lizard is more like a human than a turnip, so lizards get more warm fuzzy feelings. A monkey is more like a human than a lizard, so monkeys get more warm fuzzy feelings.

But just before something reaches being a full human, there’s a drop in positive emotions towards it. This drop is the uncanny valley. It’s the point where a thing stops looking endearingly humanised and starts looking freakily sub-human. Or the point where a human is no longer seen as human and drops into the valley (zombies are the classic speculative fiction example of that… still all human and rather uncanny).

Robot design is an area where this matters. Makers want to make their robots human-like enough to make people feel good about them, but not step too far and fall into the valley.

Uncanny = Evil

The main use of the uncanny valley in the film is to signify evil.

The old robots are humanoid, but they have a blockier build and clearly robotic faces. They’re shown behaving in sympathetic ways, such as robots in storage huddling together. These robots are at the positive peak. They show sympathetic, human-like features, without appearing to be too human.

The new robots are down there in the valley. They have human-like faces, realistic eyes and rounded limbs, yet don’t look entirely human. Their voices are soft and more human-like than the old robots, yet also emotionless. The uncanny valley is telling you these robots are evil.

This is a pretty standard use of uncanny valleyness. It manipulates the audience into sympathising with the old robots and distrusting the new ones.

Why Don’t The Future People Think They’re Freaky?

Other than the protagonist, people trust the new robots. Even the protagonist doesn’t think they look untrustworthy (not any more so than the old robots anyway). So why don’t the future people think the robots are freaky?

One criticism of the uncanny valley is that it’s culturally based. A person’s experiences will change where (and possibly if) the valley exists. This is shown when humans drop into the valley.

Supposing you had a friend who didn’t have hands. You have no problem perceiving your friend as being human. A stranger isn’t used to your friend, and places him in the uncanny valley. The stranger’s reactions are hostile and untrusting. This example is unfortunately not that hypothetical – people with obvious deformities, scarring and missing limbs can end up in the uncanny valley and are treated accordingly.

The important point is that you and the stranger have different thresholds for what’s human and what’s not. However, given time, the stranger will get to know the friend, and will stop seeing hands as a defining human feature*.

Back to robots, it’s clear that a society’s view on robot appearance could modify. What’s uncanny at first may not be in a few generations time**. (On the other hand, it’s possible there’s a limit on what people would accept as human. As we have no evidence either way, a story could take either view***).

Why Do We Like Sonny?

Sonny is one of the uncanny robots. This is emphasised in his early appearances, by displaying almost human behaviour. He dreams and can draw, yet draws with precision with both hands at once. He’ll fight to survive, yet does so with superhuman strength and agility. Unlike our friend with no hands, he’s not displaying completely human behaviour. It’s going to be difficult to overcome that feeling of uncanniness.

By the end of the film, Sonny is showing human understanding of things like loyalty, deception and the value of free choice. It’s interesting that while watching the film, I have no trouble accepting Sonny, yet the screenshots still look creepy. Appearance may put a robot into the valley, but behaviour can pull them out of it.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, as behaviour is the thing that tells you real humans are humans. Often a screen robot looks uncanny because its behaviour is a little off (this can also be true of 3D animated people… the audience picks up on tiny errors in the movement that betrays the fact it’s a simulation).

How Do We Like Sonny?

This is a question that’s hard to answer. When we take someone or something back out of the valley, what are we actually doing? Do we see them as…

  • A human (whether they are or not). Any differences are accepted as normal human variation.
  • Near-human. We may not have had a category for that before, but our brains start to realise there’s a middle-ground between human and not.
  • An exception. We’d still find others like them just as uncanny, but the individual is accepted.

In the case of the friend without hands, it’s going to be the first one. We soon realise that hands were never a defining part of being human anyway. The friend behaves in an entirely human way, so it’s not a difficult leap to make.

With Sonny, there’s still a voice saying he isn’t human. Whether we’re seeing him in a near-human category, or he’s just sneaking closer to be seen as fully human, is hard to say.

It would be fair to say that any one of those options could be realistic in a story.

Application to Fiction

Stories don’t have the same visuals as films, but the ways character might react may be based on this principle.

One interesting issue is that it might means it’s easier to accept a non-human robot as a sentient being with rights. The robot who falls in the valley has to overcome feelings of distrust – something an out-of-valley robot doesn’t have to contend with.

The robot Asimo is a classic out-of-valley design. Roughly humanoid and able to move in a human-like way, but robotic enough that he doesn’t fall in the valley. People react in a positive way to Asimo****, and this would obviously be a great advantage if Asimo were sentient and trying to gain rights. People wouldn’t assume he was evil.

On the other hand, Sonny has an uphill struggle. It’s interesting that the movie makers didn’t try to make Sonny look outwardly friendlier than the other new robots. The viewer has to overcome their own prejudices to see Sonny as anything other than the bad guy.

Few robot stories deal with the potential issues of a robot facing discrimination for its appearance. Perhaps a new robot line would be a little too human-looking and not sell as well, so they face being dismantled for parts. Perhaps when it comes to choosing between believing the blocky robot and the almost-human one, a character might go with their instinct and chose the blocky robot (possibly with disastrous consequences).

The sort of cultural change needed to accept an almost-human robot as human (or as definitely not human, and not uncanny) would take a long time to reach. In the meantime, all those robots in the valley have a problem. It’s odd that their problem doesn’t appear in fiction as much as you might expect.

* This has some real world significance too, because it suggests that it’s important for people to have experience of a wide range of people. If they don’t, they run they risk of seeing other humans as non-human.

** In Doctor Who, Donna (a modern day woman) meets automated greeters at a library in the future. These greeters have human faces on them, to put patrons at ease. They’re normal to the future people, but freaky to Donna.

*** Kryton, an android in Red Dwarf, has a blocky appearance. The crew discovers that earlier models look identical to humans. When asked why Kryton looks more primitive, he explains it’s because humans didn’t like their androids looking too human. Later models were made to look less human on purpose*****.

**** One example was the reaction to the Honda advert where Asimo moves through a museum. Some watchers were moved to tears, as it shows a very positive view of technology… a friendly robot reacting the way a human might to the museum exhibits. Few (if any) people thought “that robot looks like a mass murderer… I wouldn’t let him near those gadgets”.

The advert can be watched here. And just because it’s fun, dancing robots!

***** Though the way people react to humans in costumes is always somewhat different. Data from Star Trek was made to look slightly not human, in both behaviour and appearance. Yet he didn’t tend to set of people’s uncanny valley alarm. He’s a man in a costume and we know it.

Sonny photo is Copyright © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Used for review purposes.