Zootopia, an Animal Movie About Humans

By Aaron Bumgarner



It wasn’t surprising to see Disney Animation’s new movie, Zootopia, top the box office during its opening weekend. The biggest competition was London Has Fallen, the sequel to the underwhelming Olympus Has Fallen from 2013. It was still almost expected when Zootopia was number one again the following weekend, since the only other new opener with a chance was niche thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane. But this past weekend, when Zootopia bested the third Divergent movie, making it the number one movie three weeks in a row, it was time to pay attention.

You honestly already should have been paying attention to Zootopia, for its quality if not for the quantity of dollars it’s bringing Disney. Again, even in the area of quality, Zootopia wasn’t really a surprise. Disney Animation (separate from but friendly with Pixar, both of which are under John Lasseter’s management) has released great movie after great movie, starting in 2010 with Tangled, then Wreck-It Ralph in 2012, Frozen in 2013, and the Marvel collaboration Big Hero 6 in 2014. With this track record, quality was to be expected. But what was wholly unexpected was the kind of movie Disney ended up making. Zootopia is not only an exciting, zippy piece of children’s entertainment but also an insightful and timely plea for human decency.

Of course, it takes a movie about animals to demonstrate our need for human decency. Zootopia follows Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit from the country who wants nothing more in life than to make the world a better place by becoming a police officer in the great metropolis of (you guessed it- congratulations!) Zootopia. Zootopia is filled with animals of all kinds, both prey and predators, but Judy would be the world’s first bunny cop. We see a montage of Judy working hard at the police academy, and then a scene of her being badged in which we learn Judy is the first officer instated under the mayor’s new “mammal inclusion program”. That phrase alone should give you an idea of which side of this movie’s bread is buttered.

And yet it goes in a completely different direction. You’d think this might be a harmless movie that uses Judy’s story of succeeding against prejudices within the police force as a paean to both hard work and inclusion. And the movie does explore that angle to great effect. But Zootopia goes further, giving Judy an assignment to find a missing otter with the help of an untrustworthy fox (Jason Bateman) and finding ways therein to comment on police violence, identity politics, and fearmongering politicians. What starts as a “you can be anything you want to be” fable becomes a kind of social commentary unprecedented from Disney.

I feel comfortable designating Zootopia a liberal movie because of the ways that it comes down on a lot of these issues. But ending my description there (as I often have over the past few weeks when describing the movie to friends) has seemed incomplete in retrospect, especially after a conversation with a few of my good friends last weekend. We talked at length about the concepts of privilege and diversity and what the costs and benefits are of a culture that uses such demarcations. We disagreed on a lot and agreed on some, but by the end it was clear that we were all seeking solutions to the same problems: disunity and disharmony. Zootopia, while being decidedly in favor of liberal ideals, is far more in favor of unity and harmony, and the movie recognizes that achieving those goals in the real world is complicated.

And that’s why Zootopia is such a special movie. Some have gone so far as to call it anti-Trump- that’s probably a stretch, since it went into production before our country’s Trump situation had reached peak Trump. But I suppose it’s inherently anti-Trump just by virtue of being pro-human decency. More than anything- more than a celebration of diversity or an ode to hard work or an argument for inclusive government programs- Zootopia is a movie that values harmony above all. And in the midst of this divisive political campaign, harmony seems to be what we need most.

Aaron Bumgarner is a speech-language pathologist for Oklahoma City Public Schools, but he’s mulling over a move to Zootopia.

Lessons from Katrina?

A Break from Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

By Aaron Bumgarner

Memorial in Water


Having read a book about Katrina hardly makes you an expert on Katrina or New Orleans or hurricanes. But you learn enough to see that being an expert hardly means you make all the right decisions. Five Days at Memorial covers one New Orleans hospital’s ordeal before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina hit. The hospital was named Memorial Medical Center, and it received national media attention after Katrina for accusations of doctors and nurses euthanizing patients during the disaster. Author Sheri Fink is meticulous and thorough in her reporting, giving detail to the lives of everyone affected and making clear the medical, legal, and political bureaucracy involved at every stage.

The most fascinating section of the book is also the most heartbreaking, the five days at Memorial, when the hurricane hit. We get an intimate look at the horrifying conditions and the desperate doctors, nurses, and patients fighting for survival. The hospital didn’t flood completely, but enough that some of the electricity was knocked out and the heat became sweltering.

Taking care of the patients became increasingly difficult to the point that some patients appeared to be suffering on the verge of death. This hostile environment, coupled with the unwilling ignorance of the volatile situation in the city outside, presumably contributed to the tragic decisions made to end patients’ lives without their permission.

Fink writes that it was later revealed that some of the more senior doctors had taken some breaks from the hard work of caring for patients and running a hospital in crisis by retreating to a part of the hospital unaffected by the storm to run fans and watch TV. Somehow they failed to suggest that the patients be moved to this more amenable environment or that the hospital’s overworked nurses seek similar respite.

Pop Culture and Katrina

Five Days was released at a curious time: in 2013, eight years after Katrina. After you read the book, though, you appreciate the utter immersion Fink endured to tell the full story, and eight years seems surprisingly brief. But in all that time, there’s been a surprising dearth of popular culture dealing with Katrina. Fink writes about one prime example most relevant to Memorial, an episode of Boston Legal, of all things, in which the court rules in favor of a doctor who euthanized patients during Katrina. Some that I’ve encountered include the homemade movie Trouble the Water and the epic non-fiction Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. And of course, there’s Treme, the inscrutable HBO show by Wire genius David Simon.

There’s just not much out there, which I suppose shouldn’t be too surprising. America has exhibited a disturbing trend recently of not processing its tragedies in its art. This goes for 9/11 too, of course. When trailers for United 93 played in theaters, there were cries of “Too soon!”, though it was released five years after the event. We now only allow our major filmmakers to make movies about the wars we’re in overseas, not the disasters within our own borders. And that’s only true if they’re marketed as heroic victories, even when the stories they tell are morally ambiguous cautionary tales.

I say all this not because we can’t handle the truth. We handle it just fine when the narrative is packaged nicely for us, such as when the Saints won the Superbowl in 2010 and it was painted as a win for the Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. That Saints win was important; it provided hope at a time when hope was still hard to come by. But that’s not the only function of pop culture. Art should also be able to shine a light on misdeeds so we can learn from history and do better next time. The fact that popular art has ignored Katrina isn’t unexpected, but it is unacceptable.

Learning for the Future

Five Days at Memorial received a lot of attention last year. It won the National Book Award for non-fiction and appeared on the New York Times Best Books of 2013 list. The story has been optioned for a movie by Scott Rudin, producer of The Social NetworkMoneyball, and Captain Phillips. Those may be the best movies you could want as examples for the kind of quality this story deserves.

Popular culture doesn’t solve problems, but it does teach. Five Days at Memorial is an instructive book, but movies obviously have a higher profile. When popular culture engages with current events like this with a high level of public exposure, then regular culture has no excuse. When catastrophe strikes again due to a failure of bureaucracy (like, say, an Ebola crisis), learning from disasters like Katrina is what will save us. If we don’t learn, it will look much like the above episode from Five Days, in which the nurses and patients suffer in the heat and the doctors relax in cool air conditioning and watch TV. It will be the poor and underprivileged who suffer the consequences.


Aaron Bumgarner is a speech-language pathologist for Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Entertainment Reads (August 12th, 2014)


Each week on Tuesday we’ll post our favorite links to articles from the pop culture world. They’ll at least tangentially pertain to education or sociological issues in general, and they’ll be from the past week. There will be a few bonus exceptions though, usually in the form of a link that was too fun to pass up. Because we too like to have the fun.

I did take last week off, so we’ll have TEN links this week. Enjoy.

In things I wish I wrote: Amy Nicholson tells you to support female-driven movies by not going to see Lucy. (LA Weekly)

In political correctness: Shaq is being sued because he made fun of a man’s appearance, much of which is altered due to a condition. (ESPN.com)

In it’s complicated: A music festival in Ohio dropped R. Kelly from its lineup due to complaints from other bands and sponsors, seeing as many still think he’s guilty of child pornography. (Pitchfork)

In more NBA: The first deaf NBA player is passing on his wisdom to hearing-impaired children. (Deseret News)

In maybes: Noah Berlatsky explores the idea of a transgender woman playing Wonder Woman in a movie. (Comic Book Resources)

In I must like the NBA a whole lot: The San Antonio Spurs (they’re a basketball team, you may have heard of them) hired a woman (Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Stars) as an assistant coach last week. (48 Minutes of Hell)

In it’s been complicated for a long time: Brian Eno has opinions on Israel and Gaza. (Stop the War Coalition)

In N.W.A. would be proud: Spike Lee is mad at the NYPD, and he’s letting them know through art. (BuzzFeed)

In college sports: So the NCAA lost a court case, and college sports conferences are autonomous. Wow. (Grantland)

In the tragedy in Missouri: Celebrities speak out on social media about Mike Brown’s slaying. (Rolling Out)

Bonus not for fun: Robin Williams was a great actor, and he died yesterday. Noel Murray has a moving tribute to his artistic legacy. (The Dissolve)

Entertainment Reads (July 29, 2014)


Each week on Tuesday we’ll post our favorite links to articles from the pop culture world. They’ll at least tangentially pertain to education or sociological issues in general, and they’ll be from the past week. There will be a few bonus exceptions though, usually in the form of a link that was too fun to pass up. Because we too like to have the fun.

In marvelous diversity continued: Spider-Woman is getting her own series. (IGN)


Noah Berlatsky takes a closer look at whether or not women are reading comics. (The Atlantic)

In potentially game-changing games: Hello Games is nearing its release for No Man’s Sky, a game with the potential to have repercussions across all tech media. (Grantland)

In potentially movie-changing movies: Nelson George discusses recent African-American cinema in light of the new James Brown biopic. (The New York Time)

In things worth collecting: William Foster III has quite the collection of comics featuring black characters. (The Middletown Press)

Entertainment Reads (July 1st, 2014)

Best entertainment links of the week

Each week on Tuesday we’ll post our favorite links to articles from the pop culture world. They’ll at least tangentially pertain to education or sociological issues in general, and they’ll be from the past week. There will be a few bonus exceptions though, usually in the form of a link that was too fun to pass up. Because we too like to have the fun.

In people who should know better: Gary Oldman apologizes on Jimmy Kimmel Live for things he said in Playboy magazine that were offensive to the Jewish people, the homosexual community, and anyone who has heard of Mel Gibson. (Los Angeles Times)

In student-athletes: Lester Munson outlines what you need to know about the Ed O’Bannon v. NCAA trial regarding the NCAA’s ideas about amateurism. (ESPN)

In student?-athletes: A good rundown of the NCAA’s recently re-opened investigation into the University of North Carolina’s academic scandal. (News & Observer)

In great movies: Spike Lee reflects on his 25-year-old masterpiece, Do the Right Thing. (Vanity Fair)

In the scourge of the Internet: An interesting blog post on Internet comments. (Some Came Running)

12 Years a Slave (A Break from Our Regularly Scheduled Programming)

By Aaron Bumgarner

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is only the third movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture with a black person* in its starring role. The first was In the Heat of the Night, starring the great Sidney Poitier in a story about a black cop facing racism in a corrupt, Southern town. The second was Driving Miss Daisy, which I love but which does not give its black star, Morgan Freeman, a flattering role to play as the driver for the initially racist character that Jessica Tandy plays. So the movies that history will remember as the best movies starring black people in the first 85 years of the Academy’s history all deal with racism. That apparently, is the only story about black people that Hollywood has deemed worthy of setting in stone for future generations.

This is sad, but not the fault of those three movies. In the Heat of the Night and Driving Miss Daisy, while heavy-handed with their themes, are very entertaining stories with great performances. 12 Years a Slave is heavy-handed too, but only because it comes at you like a fist made of the heaviest of heavy stones and crushes any preconceived notions you might have entertained about slavery in the American South. It’s a hard movie to watch, to say the least. It’s also the best movie you could watch.

Film Review 12 Years a SlaveI’ve had several people tell me that they don’t want to see 12 Years, because it will be too hard to sit through. They don’t think they can endure it. As much as I want to grab their shoulders and shake them and tell them they have to watch it, I can’t blame them. It’s very hard to sit through. Screenwriter John Ridley has us following Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from the everyday joys of freedom to the everyday ignominies of slavery, which is hard enough. But director Steve McQueen shoots 12 Years as if he’s documenting real-life events. When Solomon is strung up on a tree after challenging a white foreman, McQueen lets the camera linger on him struggling against the rope, his toes barely grazing the grass as they desperately try to touch, the other slaves on the plantation going about their business in the background, including children playing. With that shot, McQueen lets us see that the slaves know the futility of their situation, just as he lets us see the brutality of the whippings, the abuse, the rapes. I understand why people don’t want to watch that. But McQueen and Ejiofor and Ridley made this movie because we need to watch it.

We need to watch it, because it’s not enough for the history books to tell us that slavery was ethically wrong. It’s not enough to think of slavery as a political black spot in America’s history. It’s not enough to think of slavery as a past that the civil rights movement had to overcome. No, slavery was something that happened to people, real people, and that’s what we need to learn from 12 Years a Slave. There’s a scene near the middle of the movie in which the great Lupita Nyong’o’s character begs Solomon to kill her, so weary is she of her existence under the thumb of Michael Fassbender’s plantation owner. That’s the kind of human desperation that slavery bred. It’s hard to understand that slavery robbed people of their humanity when it’s considered in the abstract. Watching 12 Years a Slave makes that thought process painfully easy.

Review of 12 Years a SlaveIt worries me that we still haven’t learned that lesson yet though. It’s tempting to look at 12 Years as a faux-documentary of a terrible time in America’s past. And McQueen has shot it that way, paying close attention to the period details. But don’t think for a minute that McQueen didn’t make this movie with a thought to what it might have to say to us now. A period movie may be set in a different time, but it’s always meant for the time in which it’s released.

We can be excited that a gut-wrenching movie about slavery won Best Picture, and we can be excited that people actually turned out to watch it. But I worry that we’ll think we did it, we’ve made it, there’s no progress left to be made. If you were counting up top, that’s 3 Best Picture winners with black people in the starring role…out of 85. (Spoiler alert, sort of.) If the end of 12 Years is any indication, there’s work left to be done. Solomon is the only slave that gets freed at the end, and he has a moment with Patsey (Nyong’o) right before he leaves in which they both realize that his horrors are finished, but hers are nowhere near completion. If there’s a lesson to be learned from 12 Years, it’s not “Look how far we’ve come.” It’s “We can’t stop now.”

*Note: I say “black person”, but I really mean “black man”, because no movie starring a black woman has ever won.


Aaron is a speech-language pathologist working for Oklahoma City Public Schools.