Disney’s 2016 animation Zootopia (trailer above) is the latest example of the studio and industry’s stereotypical representation of animals. Disney’s films often rely on techniques such as stereotypes, quest narrative, and clear associations to humans (through anthropomorphism) to evoke interest and captivate audiences. Here, the text (Zootopia) acts as a foundation from which themes and issues facing the film industry (regarding the representation of animals) emerge, issues, which I will explore throughout.
Firstly, the film plays on the stereotypes assigned to animals, and juxtaposes them through representation of a contradictory human counter parts. For example while cheetahs are typically thought of as agile, athletic and powerful, Officer Clawhauser in the film is a quirky, feminine and overweight male desk cop. Furthermore the conceptualization of Shrews often depicted as small and meek is contradicted through reference to a Vito Corleone (‘God Father’) type-intimidating persona in the film. Secondly, the overarching use of quest narrative through the main character, Officer Hops, and her need to prove herself through solving the mystery, drive the plot of the film.
Moving forward, I want to highlight and hone in on the anthropomorphism aspect and explore its effect on the depiction of animals in the media. Historically humans have always had an interest in the animal world, with hieroglyphics and ancient Palaeolithic cave paintings (Lascaux) being early examples of this need to relate to animals. The reliance on anthropomorphism for entertainment has been apparent for centuries especially in artists such as Ernest Griset and John Tenniel, artists Disney animators praise for their ability to caricature society and human behaviour (Allan 1999, p. 45). This tradition of talking animals that possess’ human characteristics is long engrained in Disney’s storytelling and cinematic traditions.
While animals have always been a source of interest, however recently we have seen a proliferation in animal-human type animations and wildlife documentaries. Field (1947, p. 20) suggest that this is due to humanity becoming “less dependent on animals on a day to day basis”; while this might be true I tend to agree with Rose (2013) who suggest it is due to our guilt of their destruction, fear of extinction and our advances in animation and wildlife filming that is driving the interest in this genre. Regarding the representation of animals in the media there are two sides, constantly playing a tug of war.
On one side, there is the academics, who state that representations of animals by Disney tend to blur the “binary opposition of nature and humanity, the represented environment’s ‘hyper reality’ allows animals to break free from the oppression that distinguish them from humans” (Dorozario 2006, p.53). Arguing that the lack of distinction between human and nonhuman animals in the fantastic world of children’s literature and film will result in “distorted representations of intelligence, capabilities and morality of nonhuman animals, these misrepresentations influencing later real relationships with animals” Anderson, & Henderson 2005, p. 306).
One the other hand animators and directors argue that the role of cartoons and nature documentaries are not to “picture or duplicate real actions or things as they actually happen, but to give a caricature of life in action” (Disney quoted in Leventi-Perez, 2011, p.140). Camileri, head of Disney animation and Disney Nature says that to be against anthropomorphism is taking a step back, and argues that we should “stop considering animals as just machines with no feelings, no emotion and no potential thinking process” (Rose 2013). Camileri goes on to state that there is an inherent need to take some “notorious liberties in order to make these subjects more entertaining, a good story has to follow a character, who evolves and explores his emotions” (Rose 2013).
So it seems like there are two options, embrace the wonderful world of talking and dancing bears that also have bad days like us, or seek more authentic representation of said bears without an overarching human narrative, leading to a true depiction of said animal. Which side are you on?
Allan, R 1999, Walt Disney and Europe; European Influences on the Animated Feature Films of Walt Disney, London, John Libbey & Company, p. 1 – 40
Anderson, M.V & Henderson, J. Z 2005, Pernicious Portrayals:The Impact of Children’s Attachment to Animals of Fiction on Animals of Fact, in Society & Animals , Vol.13, no. 4, p. 298 – 315
Dorozario, R.C 2006, The Consequences of Disney Anthropomorphism Animated, Hyper Environmental Stakes in Disney Entertainment, in Femspec, vol.2, no.1, pp. 51-65
Field, R. D 1947, The Art of Walt Disney, Collins, UK, p. 1 – 25
Leventi-Perez, O 2011, ‘Disney’s Portrayal of Nonhuman Animals in Animated Films between 2000 and 2010’, ScholarWorks at Georgia State University, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-131.
Rose, S 2013, accessed 24 March 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/apr/25/animals-hollywood-films-too-human