26 July 2016

I finally got around to watching Zootopia this past weekend. I enjoyed it, but I wasn't overly enthusiastic about it when the credits started rolling. But it's stuck with me, and I've been thinking about it a lot in the past few days, so I figured I'd jot down a few thoughts:

Thought 1: Zootopia has a remarkably tight plot

This didn't jump out at me as I was watching it or even right after it was over, but the more I think about it, the more I realize--man this is a quality flick!

For example, the scene where Judy's chasing that weasel: as I was watching it, I thought, "Well, here it is--that old classic scene where the underdog protagonist tries to make a hero of themselves and ends up making a huge mess of things and getting in trouble. Ten bucks says the next scene has her landed in the chief's office getting put on some kind of probation."

And I was right--to a point. The scene played out as expected, and the next scene was indeed inside the chief's office for the very reason I had predicted. And yet it was different, too. When it looked like the little rodential apartment buildings were going to topple like dominoes, Judy righted them. In the end, she actually handled things quite well and didn't make much of a mess at all. She even made a friend with a little vole by complimenting her hair--and that ends up being really important later on.

"Huh," I thought. "Kinda clever that the vole showed up again later."

But that wasn't the end of it--not by a long shot. In the third act, when Judy finally solves the mystery, that weasel turns out to be the key. In the end, that scene played an entirely different (and surprisingly crucial) role in the total plot structure.

And that seems to be how the whole movie works. I've only seen it once, so I can't say for sure, but I think pretty much everything that happens early on comes up again recently. In fact, a sound bite uttered in the very first scene is, I think, repeated exactly in the climax. And the twist that happens in the climax--totally built up to, but still completely fooled me. Very impressive.

Thought 2: Zootopia has a lot to say about race

I haven't checked, but I assume other people on the internet have discussed this. It was, in some places, extremely overt. And yet, here again, the more I thought about it, the more layers I found.

You can't just say, "The predators represent Black people." They do for sure at the end of the movie, but remember that Judy only became a cop through an affirmative action program. So Judy is also Black, or at least a minority of some kind. And then she ends up perpetuating racism against the predators.

I think rather than interpreting bunnies or predators or any other group of animals as representing particular minorities, I think it's best to accept the movie as a separate world that is dealing with similar issues. When you do that, it'll give you a lot more to think about regarding our own world.

Final Thought: That world is pretty stinkin' cool

The detail that really sticks out to me is the sprinklers in the Rain Forest District during Judy's initial train ride into Zootopia. I'm a bit sad we didn't get to see all 14 districts, but we should appreciate the writers' restraint in this regard. Still, if this was the 90s, I'd be totally stoked to watch the spinoff TV show that inevitably would have explored all 14 districts.

All in all, a solid flick. Don't know that I'll get around to revisiting it myself, but I'd say it's well worth multiple watchings.

05 May 2016

In defense of passive voice

Okay, I get it--passive voice tends to make things wordy and convoluted. We all hold our breath when our boss says "a decision was made" because it means the decision was made anonymously, which doesn't bode well. Fine. But passive constructions can help out stylistically in many cases, and sometimes they even help simplify your prose.

Don't believe me? Well, let's take my previous paragraph as an unwitting example: "...because it means the decision was made anonymously." Any volunteers wanna find a non-awkward way to scrub that passive construction out of the sentence?

(There isn't a way to revise what's there and get an active construction; you'll have to start entirely from scratch and say something like "...because it mean whoever made the decision is going to remain anonymous"--not terrible, I guess, but not exactly what I was saying before, either.)

But passive voice isn't only for when the subject is unknown. I love passive voice because it gives me a lot of power over the flow of information. Check it out:
Active: Usain Bolt broke the world record.
Passive: The world record was broken by Usain Bolt.

Okay, yes--the active version is shorter and more direct. That should definitely be your default setting. But consider this context:
After getting a bronze medal in Osaka, Asafa Powell swore he would break the world record for the 100-meter dash. And he did: in September 2007, he set a new world record of 9.74 seconds. Nine months later, that record was broken by Usain Bolt.
This is nice because, stylistically, it's generally best to give old information before new information. In this paragraph, our focus shifts from Asafa Powell to the world record and then from the world record to Usain Bolt. The passive construction helps with this flow.

Another case where passive voice is handy is when you want to really emphasize the subject. That seems counterintuitive because the subject is often omitted in the passive, but there's this thing called end weight that give the most oomph to the thing that comes last.

(There's another unwitting example: "...the subject is often omitted in the passive...." I suppose I could have said, "The passive often omits the passive," but, again, look at the flow of information: case-->subject, subject-->passive.)

This technique is used a lot in humor, as in, "I can't believe it--I'm getting beat by a rug!" For more examples, just Google this phase (and include the quotation marks): "by a freaking"

The point is, the passive voice does have a place. Yes, it's often used unnecessarily, unwisely, and unwell. Yes, checking your prose for passive constructions will reveal many places you can tighten things up. But that doesn't mean passives don't have their place. As with most grammar and style advice, the real rule isn't "Thou shalt not" but "Stop and think."