I’ve been thinking about the importance of Story again. My friend E. L. Bates recently posted the transcript of a talk she gave at her local library on that topic (read the full thing here, it’s well worth it). “This is what stories do,” she says, “they sink into our hearts and give us the tools we need to live more fully, more richly, in the everyday world around us.” Yes, exactly.
Last weekend, we went to see the new Disney movie, Zootopia. I’d heard that it was good, so while I wasn’t expecting any great profundity of the flick (it’s a Disney talking-animal movie, after all), I went into it hoping to be amused for a couple of hours and not have too many groaner moments. And those hopes weren’t disappointed.
But what bowled me over was the message of the film. That’s right, a Disney talking-animal flick with a message that I actually found really meaningful. And not the standard follow-your-heart-you-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be one, either (which nowadays just causes an eye-roll reflex in me, but that’s a rant for another day). Now, I don’t want to give any spoilers, the movie still being as new as it is. But what I found astounding is that the makers of Zootopia, who have been working on this movie for, I dunno, years, put out a film that hits right smack-dab at the bull’s eye of the current social issues. It’s as if they’d had a premonition of what the political and social climate of March of 2016 was going to be like, and they set out to tell a story that makes its point far more effectively than any sermon or political rant could do.
And that’s something I found profoundly encouraging. Because, you see, young children aren’t going to go to political rallies. And, let’s face it, most of their parents and grandparents won’t, either. But they’ll go to this movie, because it’s Junior’s birthday and you’ve got to do something with that horde of little hoodlums he’s insisted on inviting. So you take them to the movies to see the story of a perky little bunny rabbit from the country who wants to be a big-city cop, and hope that her and her sly-fox sidekick’s adventure will keep the kids quiet for a couple of hours. And in the process, Junior, his friends, and Mommy, Daddy and Grandma, without even noticing it, are being taught some lessons that couldn’t be more important in this moment in history, lessons about the insidiousness of fear and prejudice and of the power of acceptance.
But let me quote E. L. Bates again: “But [the stories] are not instruction manuals thinly disguised as entertainment! Perish the thought! If you set out, in writing a story, to point a moral or teach people something, you have failed before you’ve even begun.” In the case of Zootopia, Disney most certainly did not fail. It’s a well-told story in its own right, full of endearing characters that will enter the Disney canon, with great animation and jokes (including quite a few that will zip right over Junior’s head, but provide Mom & Dad with a good chuckle – including the teensy little Mafioso shrew with his nasal Godfather drawl). We’ll keep watching this film for decades to come for its story, because it’s a good movie – and in the process, its profound message is going to be absorbed into our collective psyche.
The pen (or in this case, film camera) is mightier than the sword – and that is something that can give us all hope.
Life, the Universe, and Zootopia. Story wins again.