Zootopia vs. The Jungle Book


Furries of the world have a lot to celebrate this Spring as Disney rolled out two anthropomorphic talking animal blockbusters: Zootopia and The Jungle Book. Despite the universal praise for Zootopia and the predictable leftist hit pieces against the “racist,” “imperialist,” and out-dated Jungle Book, I have little doubt that in 100 years Rudyard Kipling will still have his work being adapted and no one will remember a thing about Zootopia.

Why? Because Zootopia, despite its virtues, is wholly red meat (ironically absent from its vegan utopian world) for modern progressive wish fulfillment regarding genetics and ability favoring unattainable blank slates versus genetic rationality that exists in reality. The premise is so preposterous that when you actually analyse the “utopian” world, the internal inconsistencies destroy the suspension of disbelief required to adopt the PC premise. And it’s not just a failure of extending a metaphor too far, the fatal choices are deliberate and central.

Beneath a deliciously cute cover–the animation and character design are sure to sell millions of adorable plush animals and spawn a generation of young artists who will mimic the style in their anthro art–is a surprisingly weak story that fails at nearly every turn to match the message with reality. Specifically the story pushes the trite Socialist Utopia (it’s right there in the title), where animals are so amazingly blank slate in the future that predators no longer eat prey! Like Star Trek socialism, they ignore the issues of scarcity and necessity, there is just enough food (not described but assumed vegan) for everyone and it’s hand waved where it even comes from or what obligate carnivores like Cats are even supposed to eat if not fresh and raw flesh.

The message is typical progressive rah-rah minority and special interest propaganda. There’s the “strong female lead” which is a necessity now for PC approval, and yet when positive critics claim that this character speaks against sexism, the movie itself offers no overt affirmation of this. The female bunny rabbit who strives to become the first police officer from a prey species (versus the 10% minority predator species, who dominate the job) or maybe it’s the first mammal police officer, or wait it’s the first rabbit police officer… we have no opposition presented against HER being a female, in fact there’s overtly another female cop already on the force (an elephant). Nor do we have a lack of mammals on the police force. Nor is she really the first prey species, as the police chief is a Water Buffalo. So she’s the first rabbit police officer. And yet there was no overt limitation against this happening in the world save the expectation of her parents and peers and the ability to pass the physical requirements of the tests, which the rabbit initially fails but using her smarts finally masters.

If this is an allegory for sexism, it fails because she’s never denied anything by her sex. Nor is she denied anything by her race/species. All the metrics presented in the world are objective skill and when she finds a means of passing them, she’s awarded the top position in her graduating class and is assigned to the most important post: Inner City Zootopia. Mind you, she’s then “punished” but the Water Buffalo by being assigned meter maid duty instead of being put on the case of the dozen plus missing persons cases which eventually form the plot of the movie.

Other elements of sexism against the factually female lead are also absent. For instance, her parents don’t try and talk her out of becoming a cop in favor of, say, fulfilling an implied duty to settle down and start pumping out more baby bunnies (not that they don’t reinforce the fecundity stereotype of rabbits rather often). They are fearful of the danger of the job and don’t make any mention of a gender role. No one does in fact, friend or foe.

So it’s rather unclear what the glass ceiling is against her, or rabbits or other species of animal from becoming police officers in this world. At the end we’re supposed to be fulfilled that she’s still a top cop and her ad hoc Fox partner (who is a con artist she picks up along the way to proving her viability to stay on the job) is allowed to be a cop too. These fail on examination because there are corollary animals already on the police force for all the categories we might assume that the rabbit and fox are breaking the glass ceiling for: predators and prey, meek and aggressive, mammal and otherwise, male and female.

The best glass ceiling I can muster is a comparison to the modern debate over women on the front lines of the infantry. Even this fails in Zootopia, however because unlike women versus men in human combat roles, there are much more profound physical differences in the animal world and there are nowhere near the technological levelers to compensate (such as the observation that women can use a gun as well as a man despite their general smaller lighter frames and decreased physical performance in regards to strength or otherwise. In humans, we have women who are passing the requirements that men have to pass and there’s much to be said for a smaller, faster, lighter human being able to wield a gun that is every bit as deadly). In Zootopia, without the magical hand-waving that is left unexplained, a tiny female rabbit would not last very long as a police officer in a realistic world where the first wolf driver she pulls over to ticket for speeding could quickly devour her whole.

Which brings us to the central failing of Zootopia. Despite the utopian hand-waving where predators no long predate and prey no longer pray for deliverance from being eaten, what lessons are really going to stick from this artifice when children and everyone else will be constantly reminded that in the real world, predators will still and always hunt and kill their prey. The ethics of Zootopia are built on the fundamental and unresolvable lie that life can exist without death and that some bundle of modern values can over-come the laws of nature that every living thing consumes and is consumed.

Zootopia and Jungle Book both contain the little lie: talking animals who have humanesque social structures suitable to hang a morality tale on. The big lie in Zootopia, however, is one that ultimately dooms the story to fluff instead of insight. The neutering of nature, the removal of cause and effect.

Compare the training montage of Judy Hopps to Mowgli. Both begin with a traumatic motivator: young Judy dreams of being a police officer but is assaulted by a stereotypical/cliche insecure male bully fox who scars her face. Years later we find her in the Academy failing most of the physical tests repeatedly while the female instructor declares her “dead” after every failure. But she overcomes eventually using her wits. This includes things like knocking out a Rhino in the boxing ring using the amazing powers of magic elastic ropes to jettison her body like a cannonball. While well within the realm of cartoon physics, we know that in real life you could fire a rabbit out of a cannon into the temple of a Rhino and it probably wouldn’t notice. Reality trumps the too-perfect movie logic.

Mowgli has a training montage of his own, where it’s acknowledged that he can’t run as fast as the wolf pack, and likewise he compensates with his comparative advantage, his arms and his brains. Mowgli swings from branches and vines to compensate for the physical deficiencies that he will never match the wolves at. And even still he fails when he chooses his path poorly, picking to vault off of a dead tree whose branch fails to hold his weight. His panther mentor teaches him to look for the vines encasing dead trees, the tell tale sign of their rotted nature. Which of course is foreshadowing the finale of the film where Mowgli uses his very human nature to best Shere Khan luring the beast into a trap which takes advantage of a rotted out tree, his weapon being his mind and his climbing as he has no claws to match the deadly tiger. Note that Mowgli’s adoptive wolf mother chastises him for using “tricks” which are not the hallmark of wolves, but his mentor Bagheera supports his use of cunning and technology and this is further exploited and encouraged by Baloo when he tricks Mowgli into amazing feats of engineering to create a stockpile of delicious honey. The wolves ultimately reject Mowgli because they can’t accept his nature, he will never BE a wolf or be made to be a wolf despite their rigid wolf propaganda nurture regime. Baloo has no problem exploiting Mowgli’s comparative advantage, in what is at the surface a selfish exploitation but which provides Mowgli the opportunity to grow into his true nature, to create tools, to engineer, to build and to conquer nature.

While we certainly have our own “cartoon logic” at work, where young Mowgli whips up Da Vinci worthy riggings that allow him to harvest the cliff hives in style, there is nothing inherently false about man’s ability to perform these feats, where as a rabbit will never sucker punch a Rhino into unconsciousness and when confronted with a raptor swooping down will most certainly die of a heart attack, a condition that would rather trump the notion that a rabbit would make a suitable police officer.

If Zootopia didn’t have the veneer of a positive, inclusive message the other trappings of its conceit would surely bring hell fire down upon it from the Politically Correct Offense brigade. For instance, there’s a rather extensive Easter Egg to Breaking Bad in the middle of the movie, complete with a sophisticated meth drug lab where the glowing blue drug which turns animals feral again is being cooked up by Walter and Jesse sheep donning yellow jump suits and breathing masks. Should such a scene appear in, say, a right wing Christian cartoon the progressive nannies would squeal over the crass joke and the assumed harm that it will do to make kids fall in love with meth due to their happy associations with Zootopia’s drug lab once they’re old enough to connect the dots, etc. While I personally don’t mind adult humor in kid’s movies to entertain the parents, nor do I suspect this scene will raise a generation of meth-loving tots, I find it worth mentioning the intense double standard the left employs to parse harmless and well meaning statements by those on the Right (or Libertarians now that we’ve arrived enough to be mocked), but when they make carefully planned tasteless homages to entirely unsuitable material for children, the criticism will be inaudible.

Other Zootopia failings are myriad when you simply point them out. We aren’t supposed to stereotype people based on their ethnicity, but the film is actually full of stereotypes and many of them hardly flattering. Wherein we just reinforce the reality to children that foxes are faster than sloths, bears are stronger than mice, giraffes taller than rabbits. If we are to take the species as race equivalents, the ideal society is rather horrific. There are essentially biome ghettos where different species are expected to live and stay with their own kind. Sloths are slow physically and mentally, and of course they populate the DMV. While this makes for an excellent joke, when you think about it, it rather sends the message that government employees, especially ones that deal with the public, are unqualified for their jobs and incompetent to the point of sabotage. Which happens in the film. Judy needs to solve the case in 48 hours to keep her job and a simple trip to the DMV to run a license plate begins in the morning and by the time she leaves it’s night. Ha ha ha, but obviously counter to the notion of some perfect utopia where things magically work out for the best.

One of the prominent criticisms against The Jungle Book is how racist and imperialist it is as metaphor for British colonization of India. A specific example points out how offensive it is that democracy or perhaps monarchy is being thrust on the apes and monkeys in the work paralleling British desire to tame the savage dark-skinned-men with their systems of law and government. It’s an interesting criticism because it both uses the assumed crime of cultural hegemony and cultural appropriation via natural selection of effective memes (democracy and laws are certainly cultural memes that even the most strident of progressive Marxists would laud, no?) while somehow not tarnishing those memes in the process. It’s so imperialist that you bring clean water although … yeah… clean water is sort of a good thing… but you’re still an asshole for doing it! If it’s so offensive in Jungle Book that monkeys and apes need a king, what then should we say of Zootopia? In that film the animals aren’t just granted a veneer of human society, they are fully stripped of their inherent cultures. We’re supposed to be offended at Kipling’s imperialism by having “King” Louie, this horrid shoving of British government on to animals. And yet Zootopia takes this to 11. Animals are supposed to have jobs and live in metropolitan cities and suffer the DMV and have career anxiety! Cell phones and apartments with loud neighbors and boutique shops and traffic tickets.

The left wants us to poop our pants in rage over a little bit of hereditary hierarchy — a culture which is abundantly present in many animal species — and yet there’s no grand criticism of the supplantation of animal culture with human culture and the sort of artifice of fake enclosure and institutional segregation which is exemplified in the ZOOtopia. The same people who cheer the closing down of SeaWorld’s killer whale habitats and working performances will likely not see that this movie is one big SeaWorld complete with artificial biomes and trained careers and the whole lot. Zootopia takes it even further by removing the fish the whales would be fed if that species appeared in the film (they don’t along with a host of other clades), as all the species apparently survive on carrots, blueberries, doughnuts, and popsicles. It must be noted that the character of King Louie is not the invention of Kipling, but wholly created by Disney. There is no analog for him in the original texts and frankly both the original movie and the 2016 remake are only thematically related to the works of Kipling. His works are actually more complex and interesting in their use of identity and belonging and community and how Mowgli forges an identity for himself both apart from man and from the jungle. Anyone looking for some “British imperialism is superior to primitive native culture” will not find much evidence in the actual works of Kipling…. Mowgli doesn’t find happiness in ritualized tea ceremony and copious amounts of quinine, pomp, and circumstance. But, of course, actually reading the source material was never the strong point of outraged neo-feminist-Marxist lit crit bloggers, they are all crit, very little lit.

The leftist rags also praise Zootopia as taking a stand against racism and minority rights and policing. I’m not sure how this is supposed to work, however, as in the reality of the film the minority predators (who they tell us multiple times make up 10% of the population) are actually over-represented in the government and the police force. There’s really no “Predator Lives Matter” possibility here. The Mayor of the city is a Lion. The majority of the powerful animals in the film are predators or surrounded by predators. And when the movie tries so hard to make the PC point that it’s not inherently the nature of the bad guys to be bad, the nature of the predators to be violent, etc., that lesson is doomed to fail because in the REAL world the animal kingdom is a profound lesson in nature being superior to nurture. Predators kill because that is how they evolved to survive. So what does that make of our minority vs. cops problem in humans? “It’s all in how they’re raised” falls flat when we move out of dog mommy world and into nature. So is this movie really making a positive PC point in favor of violent crimes committed by human minorities? I don’t know how you could reconcile that. Panthers might be misunderstood vegans in this film, but when kids see them at the zoo they won’t be eating tofu and reading Slate.

The strongest political message in the film stems from the concocted plot of the assistant Mayor and her sheep allies to harvest a hallucinogenic plant that makes all animals become vicious and feral, and to selectively use this drug on predator species, thus creating a safety panic within the city where the “us vs. them” mentality will be used to consolidate power in the hands of the sheep. Ruling by fear. The Lion mayor is ousted and exposed when our heroes reveal that he has been keeping the dozen-some primary victims of this drug in a secret medical facility where his scientist doctor is trying to find the cause and a cure for these otherwise model citizens who have become vicious. It becomes an odd plot point because the PC leftist overtones would certainly find an appeal to nanny-state protectionism appealing, right? These are the same people who want the powerful to run around the globe protecting the meek and injured and to provide safety and protection over freedom and risk. So a safety quarantine would seem to be well within their natural playbook of options for government to deploy in such a situation. And while it was done in secret, we’ve all seen that cries for transparency are only shrill when the opposing party is in power.

So I’m not sure what to make of this major plot point because the movie itself isn’t really sure what to make of it. The scientific work that is being done is ultimately what gives us our happy ending when all the infected animals are cured at the end, and it’s not as if their quarantine is lifted when the Lion is deposed. They just sort of toss the Mayor out as a casualty and yet keep all the things he did in response in place. Perhaps this is a failure of the extended metaphor or just sloppy writing.

The Jungle Book has no such problem because Rudyard Kipling is a superior thinking and writer to the team behind Zootopia. He envisions no Socialist Utopia nonsense where animals are suddenly vegan (and probably gluten free too!) and their blank slates are filled only with what learned sages write upon them. No, Rudyard was a keen observer of nature and nature. The animals of the wild and their behavior which was dictated by their inherent qualities and inbred assets.

Zootopia seems to send the message to kids “you can be whatever you want to be.” This is a nonsense. The Jungle Book sends the superior message: be yourself, be your better self, strive to be your best self. Zootopia with all of its heavy-handed politics creates a horrifying world where animals are stripped of their inherent nature and their culture is supplanted with the most trivial of human culture. Segregation, inbreeding, and stereotyping abound when the metaphor fails a second inspection.

The Jungle Book succeeds because the values that Kipling puts forth are actually cultural memes which are still successful today. The progressive left loves to look down their noses at the religious right fundamentalist evangelicals over issues like evolution, but they don’t seem to be at all enamored with cultural evolution, with the propagation of successful memes in the same manner as successful genes become dominant in populations. What we would call cultural hybrid vigor, the left sneers at and condemns as “cultural appropriation” or “imperial cultural hegemony.” This is what leaves them in the unsupportable position of defending mainstream and radical Islam while hypocritically condemning the abuse of homosexuals, women, minorities, etc. They have no problem with cultural hegemony when it’s their ideal culture being steam-rolled over the primitive right wingers, but if it’s the British culture colonizing India god forbid we acknowledge that globalization and modernization has done immense good to raise the standard of living and assuage poverty, suffering, disease, and strife.

These same folks await every US Supreme Court decision with anticipation that such an institution will affirm their beliefs — and institution which sits atop countless cultural memes and evolutionary forces of Western Culture, a sure symbol of democracy and a constitutional republic and peaceable resolution of conflict and rule of law and codified justice and philosophies of power and the rights of the individual versus the state — would be horrified if we suggested that instead of reason and precedent and law we settled our differences by sending out two champions to fight to the death or we play a game of death soccer where the losing team is sacrificed by the winning team. And yet when we rightly point out that “imperialism” and “colonization” and “cultural hegemony” is the reason that we no longer sacrifice the neighboring tribe to bring rain for our crops, WE are the insensitive bastards, for in progressive-la-la-land you can just wave your hands and make obligate carnivores into vegans and no culture is superior to another even though progressive culture is superior to all.

Kipling (and the distillation of his themes by Disney), despite being denigrated as a racist imperialist scumbag, ultimately tells the more uplifting story. He acknowledges nature and its very real implications, but he also sends a message that even the most overly emotional tree-huggers should appreciate. Mowgli is acculturated to the jungle. He is not totally apart from it even though he is a man-cub. His very success speaks to the notion that man is a part of nature and man can learn and love the natural world and be within it and not strictly apart from it. Man’s superiority is a fact of nature, we have evolved just as long as every other life form on the planet, and yet our gifts compared to theirs have proven superior to meet our ends. This is not unnatural, it is the very product of evolution and natural selection! Kipling writes several stories that are absent from the current Disney retelling where Mowgli interacts with humans as much as he has the jungle, and finds both acceptance and rejection. In doing so he becomes a self actualized man who incorporates the merits of his two worlds and rejects the bigotry against him from both.

Zootopia strips nature of its essential qualities, the Jungle Book does not. It revels in them and builds upon them and sets them against each other the very way that nature does every hour of every day. Despite the fantasy of elevated speaking animals, the Jungle Book is grounded in reality, in nature. The metaphor informs the story. Zootopia is not grounded at all, the metaphor is ultimately at odds with reality and thus it undermines its own message. We can read in the news the perils of people who go-Mowgli and attempt to force themselves into nature’s domain and culture without acknowledging animals for what they are. Timothy “Grizzly Man” Treadwell and the “tiger whisperer” who just lost her life both come to mind. So too can we read what happens when man denies that he is part of nature and appreciates that despite our undeniable gifts we are still just one element in a larger ecosystem. Arrogance in both extremes so often leads to our death.

Man has bested Shere Khan with our brains and our arms. Rabbits will never arrest sheep for plotting political coups over lions… the best they can do is hop after them a bit pretending to be border collies. In such, the Jungle Book original and even the Disney adaptations tell a story that ring more true. Zootopia, despite being a perfectly adorable and entertaining movie does not rise to the level of art and literature worth revisiting because its story rings so false.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.