Media Parodies Media: The Bojack Horseman Story

Bojack Horseman is a Netflix Original that premiered in 2014. It’s a dark humor animation with anthropomorphic animal people navigating the shallow world of Hollywood. Somehow, I didn’t get around to this show for four years. Then I binged four seasons in an embarrassingly short time.

I was surprised by how emotionally invested I became with Bojack‘s cast of characters. Real human drama and timeless themes exist within the animated packaging featuring a talking horse.

At first, Bojack Horseman is a very nihilistic look at a ex-sitcom star’s messed up life. Booze, drugs, one night stands, many questionable decisions… it’s a fun ride to watch Bojack spiral out of control. But from the beginning the writers subtly tug at your heartstrings by fleshing out his character as well as those of the ones around him.

Bojack acts out and gets himself into trouble because, plain and simple, he’s not happy. There are the glimpses into his truly awful childhood and parents who never really wanted him, all of which ended up with Bojack becoming a washed up ex-sitcom star.

Portrayal of Media and Hollywoo(-d)

What the show does especially well is parodying the media and entertainment industries. From “A Ryan Seacrest Type”– a vapid Hollywood reporter who comments on whatever inane news has surfaced, to media-fueled squabbles over apple muffins and the insane things stars do for attention.

Amid the laughs are some really poignant digs at Hollywood in general (re-named Hollywoo after Bojack stole the D in a booze-addled stupor).

In the episode where Mr. Peanutbutter and Todd come up with the Oscar nominees, reading the whiteboard behind them was insightful and relevant. Last year’s #OscarsSoWhite scandal was put in sharp relief as they had written down “black people” and then crossed it out.

If you notice, the board also includes only female names in “Best Director” — a stark contrast to the reality. In 2018, Greta Gerwig became only the fifth female director to even be nominated for the Best Director Oscar for Lady Bird. So far the only female director to win has been Kathryn Bigelow in 2009 for The Hurt Locker.

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Bojack also parodies what happens to some child stars. With Sarah Lynn, you see the stark contrast between the innocent girl on the 90’s sitcom to the coked out mess she becomes later in life.

The Human Element

Part of the reason we care so much about these characters is because of their very real struggles:

Princess Carolyn — Cutthroat in the world of being an agent/manager, but almost always at the brink of failure. She also feels unfulfilled and wishes for a family, but is possibly past the point of no return.

Todd — discovering his sexuality. I think so far this is the only time I’ve seen a character in a show discover they are “Ace.”

Diane — Just…everything about Diane. Her issues with her family and her career struggles make her a relateable, anxiety-ridden character.

Season Five

Bojack Season 5 premiered recently. There were a couple of episodes that really stood out, like the one that centered around Diane’s exploration of her ancestral routes (for a Buzzfeed-like story she was writing) and an episode that centers around Bojack giving a speech at a funeral that doesn’t cut away and is simultaneously hilarious, dark and uncomfortable.

Season 5 wasn’t my favorite, but it still represents part of a quality piece of entertainment. If you haven’t tried this series yet, it’s about time.

Small thinking and Downsizing

I Redbox’d Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, fully expecting an unusual, indie-ish film with a decent special effects budget and commentary on human excess. What I found was a hodgepodge of themes so mashed together as to resemble a brown sludge instead of a solid idea.

It’s an intriguing concept; A scientist discovers how to shrink humans to 5 inches tall, reducing their carbon footprint. Married couple Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristin Wiig) decide to undergo the procedure so they can have the home of their dreams, only to have Audrey leave Paul when he is shrunk first. It all kinda meanders from there.

downsizing

Downsizing touches (but doesn’t commit) on the following themes:

  1. Ecological responsibility/the Green Movement
  2. Economic/Socio-economic disparities
  3. Emotional — Paul dealing with a new life after being abandoned by Audrey
  4. Political/xenophobic

The problem with all these, albeit great thematic elements, is the fact that we bounce between them, never fully embracing enough to make a strong premise.

From this point on there will be spoilers (including the ending)

The Green Movement

The scientists who created the process of downsizing did so in order to reduce our emissions and help save the world. The term “downsizing” comes from the idea of simplifying one’s life for overall improvement. A company may downsize to cut costs, or an individual may downsize their home to make it more manageable to take care of.

The movie also illustrates the green movement by showing the shared cars in the tiny city Paul moves in to. Everyone shares what appear to be electric cars.

By the end of the movie, 3% of the world’s population has downsized, but it’s not enough to keep the polar ice caps from melting. Too little, too late. Pun intended?

Socio-economic Disparities

The most interesting theme in the movie, from my point of view, were the socio-economic differences present among the little people.

At first it appears that mostly the middle class folks downsize because their money is worth more when they undergo the process. They can afford lavish mansions and live comfortably off their savings. Other people downsize as a personal choice, so escape their current life and have a fresh start.

Later on, we’re introduced to the lower-class (and mostly ethnic) residents of Paul’s city. These people still have to work for a living, some of them as maids to clean the rich people’s mansions and apartments. Paul is introduced to this world when he meets Vietnamese activist Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). She was shrunk against her will and now cleans apartments while hobbling on a poorly designed prosthetic leg.

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The disparity is shown in stark relief as Paul sees Ngoc’s side of town. First off, they have to take a crowded bus which takes them through the wall of the city’s enclosure and into a dismal town outside the wall. If that journey through the wall doesn’t say a lot about economic disparity, I don’t know what does.

Paul’s interaction with this woman is the heart of the story, and frankly what the story should have stuck to. It’s touching, it’s smart and it’s a logical endpoint for Paul to reach some conclusions on what he is worth. He can help these people with so many of their problems, either through his occupational therapy training or by helping them get food.

Sadly we had a few other themes to muck it all up.

Emotional

I tacked this on because it’s more of a plot point that doesn’t get resolved.

Audrey abandons Paul right after he’s downsized. This is something that is given away in the trailer, and lost a lot of emotional impact since it was not a surprise. It also felt very forced. Audrey never seemed thrilled about downsizing. Why did they go through with going to get the procedure? This is likely more a problem with the character than the story.

After that plot point (Audrey leaving) we get no payoff. Sure we see Paul mulling through life post-Audrey, but we don’t get a nice book-ending moment. He doesn’t see Audrey again, doesn’t speak to her, doesn’t really come to terms with it. We can argue that his friendship and later relationship with Ngoc serves that purpose, but I feel something was missing.

Political/Xenophobic

As soon as there’s anyone who’s different, there’s going to be people who hate them.

A man approaches Paul at his going-away party prior to downsizing. The man is noticeably annoyed, and says the little people should not benefit from the rest of the country’s taxes since they don’t pay any taxes, and that they should only have a portion of a vote when it comes to elections.

The guy is a racist jerk motif to the tee…but is he wrong?

Of course he is but part of the problem with the downsizing concept is that it’s not fully fleshed out. How is it economically viable to have these little people living off their savings for the rest of their lives? Forget the conversion rate of the tiny houses being so cheap, what about whenever they need to buy products or services outside their tiny cities? Not everything is produced in the tiny city. Their money can’t possible retain it’s inflated value in the outside world. That bottle of vodka from the trailer should be worth a million dollars!

And how are these people not paying taxes? How did that slip the government’s radar? Sure, the process was hailed as a tax write off because #greenmovement but …how?

Despite all that, and the interesting parallels with real-life xenophobia…the hatred between normals and little people is never expressed again.

Ending Thoughts

Downsizing was a mixed bag. Sure it had an interesting insights into the pros and cons of this imaginary medical procedure….but the fact that it couldn’t focus and elaborate on some key elements made it a bit of a mess.

If you are about to watch it, prepare for a slow beginning and meandering plot until Ngoc Lan Tran arrives, because she’s a wonderful addition. Maybe the story should have been more about her?

Thoughts & Observations: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

This is it. I’ve reached the end of the prequels, the end of the original three (The Holy Trinity of Wars-in-Stars) and I now look forward to the modern take on the seventh installment. It’s been quite a ride folks.

Alternate Titles: Last of the Jedi?

  • Today in TL;DR ….another Death Star? Like, the bad guys are ripping off their own idea? Okay, I’ll play along.
  • Dude is obviously more afraid of the Emperor than of Vader, which means Vader is doing something wrong.
  • R2D2 and C3PO look like they’re going to see the Wizard. If the Wizard was a large, slothful, disgusting slug-thing.
  • R2 somehow has the fine ability of lying his way into Jabba’s clutches to get him and Threepio exactly where they need to be, which begs the question: how can everyone understand his random assortment of beeps?!
  • Han Solo. “He’s still in carbonite!” Until Ford gets a pay raise, I assume.
  • Added CG characters are unnecessary in this whole dance scene. Even the dance scene seems like something added in the 90s/2000s as unnecessary movie-lengthening fodder.
  • Green dancer lady gets to meet the Rancor!
  • Jabba comments on the bounty hunter who brings in Chewie. “This bounty hunter is my kind of scum.” Jabba really looks like a mob boss in this scene.
  • Also, that bounty hunter is very dainty. Could that be Leia in disguise? Please be Leia.
  • I don’t know about you guys, but Lando is lookin’ mighty stylish in that helmet.
  • Hibernation sickness=weakness and blindness. Okay I’ll play along.
  • LEIA! It IS you. Such a boss.
  • Okay Georgie (Lucas) — If you were going to digitally replace a character, why not that blue rubbery elephant that belongs on Nick Jr.? Just a thought.
  • I supremely don’t like Jabba’s little muppet friend who cackles at everything. Little jerk. I’ve never wanted to kick a muppet so bad. Thanks for bringing up these new feelings, Star Wars.
  • Luke’s getting really, scary good at this Jedi mind-trick stuff.
  • The color of Luke’s outfit looks totally Dark Side. Cool.
  • The Rancor! I mean…Bantha? It’s a good thing this monster reaches for Luke in slow motion or else he’d never escape.
  • Half-naked guy gets emotional when the bantha dies. I think it was his long lost brother or something.

Fantastic quotes:

Han Solo: “How we doing?”

Luke: “Same as always.”

Han Solo: “That bad, huh?”

…and…

Jabba: “You will be executed immediately.”

Han Solo: “Good I hate long waits.”

  • The dialogue is so delectably quippy in this movie! I suddenly don’t hate Han like I should after his whole “I know” thing last movie.
  • The nodding scene! Cool turn around when Luke does that Jedi flip around in mid-air while falling gig. And a Wilhelm Scream!
  • They dispatched Boba Fett pretty well. And this is when it really hit me that Boba Fett never really did anything ever. He just sort of exists. Like, how does anyone even know his name? Does he have more than one line in the three original movies?
  • Yeah, Leia chokes Jabba! Get him girl! Show him who’s boss!

Leia

Let us henceforth replace all Slave Leia imagery with this badassery.

  • Another Wilhelm Scream for this scene? Now you’re just getting greedy.
  • When the Emperor appears in Evil HQ, he’s introduced in a really far away extreme wide shot. His posse enters in red, which really stands out impressive-like in a sea of white Stormtroopers.
  • When the scene returns to a wide shot, the Emperor’s posse is suddenly in dark blue. Strange. Did someone forget to colorize these things in the remastered version?

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  • Last of the Jedi? Why can’t Luke just train some new peeps, huh?
  • Yoda disappeared when he died. I have many existential questions about this.
  • “I don’t know, fly casual!” Oh, naturally –What Chewie is thinking, probably.
  • There hasn’t been a single arm dismemberment all movie! Luke’s Terminator-hand getting zapped was close, but no cigar.
  • Leia gains a new teddy bear friend on the planet Endor.
  • Red on one side of room, blue on the other. Great dichotomy between Vader and Emperor. Different types of evil juxtaposed, or interior decorator just getting really modern all up in here?
  • Chewie is always getting trapped or imprisoned. Like, seriously, wtf dude.
  • The Endor Lollipop Guild is there to great the main cast. They really like shiny things because they start bowing to C3PO.
  • Leia had at least 3 hairstyles so far this movie. Taking after her mother. We may be at war, but this girl doesn’t have to sacrifice fashion sense.
  • What? Leia could be a Jedi? Why doesn’t that movie exist!?
  • Vader wont even train Luke. Luke is going to have some seriously conflicting Daddy Issues now.
  • Han taps a guard on one shoulder while he dashes to the other side. So high school, but so Han.
  • Is the Emperor’s face digitally added back in to match the prequels? Because the lighting and coloration of the face don’t seem to match the hood around it. Just wondering.
  • Chewie gets his crossbow taken away so much, how does he keep getting it back? Does he ever even use it? Is it just for decoration so he has something that people can take away from him?
  • I think Han accidentally dumped a bad guy on a good guy when he picked him up and tossed him over the shoulder.
  • How did these teddy bears have time to rig all these woodland traps? Crafty buggers.
  • Leia holds up blaster. Han: “I love you.” Leia: “I know.” Perfect turn around for what was a crappy line in the previous movie.
  • Luke shows supreme morality in this film. Kinda proud of him. He’s no longer a whiny kid.
  • Vader took his sweet ass time having his change of heart. Oh never mind Luke, he’s just being zapped to death. Continue having your inner dilemma. He’ll wait.
  • During the ending celebration, the teddy bears use Stormtrooper helmets as a xylophone. Though I question the different tones present in the helmets, I’ll hand it to them; they really know how to stick it to the man.
  • Prequels-Anakin ghost appears alongside Obi-wan and Yoda. Eh, I’m actually kinda okay with this. Maybe because of the order I watched the movies in. I did, however, immediately watch the original ending so I could see the difference.

Teaching through example: Zootopia

Plot/synopsis:

Zootopia is about go-getter bunny Judy Hopps, who defies her family’s wishes and fulfills her dream of becoming a police officer in the city of Zootopia. Only problem is: nobody takes this tiny bunny seriously, and she’s delegated to meter maid duties. She gets interested in the case of missing animals across the city and is determined to find an answer, even if at the expense of her job.

Even from the trailer, it was obvious that this would be a metaphor for females breaking the glass ceiling and working extra hard to prove themselves. The writers chose to make Judy a bunny: an innocent, small, traditionally-helpless creature that represents the stereotypes associated with the feminine. The rest of her fellow police officers are typical predators, or at least large formidable prey like her bison chief. Nobody expects this bunny to succeed.

That makes her all the more eager to prove herself. “Anybody can be anything” is this bunny’s attitude, and she lives it to the fullest. She is truly a positive role model for the children going to see this film.

What’s most important–besides the delightful humor, artful design, and excellent voice acting–are the overriding themes of racism and sexism leading to a frightening world. We see the sexism through Judy’s eyes, in her pursuit of her dreams. We see the racism between predators and prey, and especially when stereotyping a species (or ethnicity.) Our other main character is Nick Wilde, a fox, who is labeled as shifty and untrustworthy because of his species.

Judy proves herself better than most by not assuming the worst of Nick the fox. In fact, she rolls her eyes at her parents offering her “fox repellant” and sticks up for Nick in an ice cream shop that tries to deny him service.

There will be somebody, somewhere out there, that thinks this movie is preachy, and that it didn’t need to be made. I would disagree with that hypothetical person. This movie is important, and it shows themes that are integral to helping kids understand at an early age that just because someone is different from them, doesn’t mean they are bad.

Every generation has its teaching models like this.

Examples:

Ferngully (1992): A boy named Zak is brought down to fairy size to see the plight of the fairies when a logging company destroys their home. It’s been like, 20 years since I’ve seen this, but I figure it was as good an early example as any.

Doug (1991–1994): Hey 90’s kids, remember this Nick cartoon series? The characters were varying shades, from beige to purple to blue. These colors were never mentioned, and the stories were average woes befalling the preteen and teenager.

Cats Don’t Dance (1997): A movie that played heavily on themes of disclusion and racism, set in ’30s Hollywood. The animals were the minority figure. They were show people, but never the star. Just look at Miss Dimple’s infuriating golden locks and psycho stare and tell me she doesn’t represent institutionalized racism.

Milestone Comics and Static Shock (2000–2004): Milestone Comics was a company founded in 1993 whose titles were published by DC, and notably was more conscious of promoting minority superheroes. This eventually led to the creation of a cartoon series, Static Shock. The cartoon centered around a teenager named Virgil Hawkins who witnesses a gang war and through an accident ends up with superpowers. This show was an excellent balance between different races, and the traditional “love interest” girls were as smart and capable as the guys.

Judy-Hopps-in-Zootopia

Judy Hopps. Go get ’em, Tiger. Or um…bunny.

Why bother?

Why bother showing race issues through children’s media? I am so glad you asked, hypothetical reader.

I think we need this gentle reminder here and there that there are all different kinds of people out there,  and the world is simply a better place with inclusion and variety. Films, TV shows, and even printed media is so full of white and male representation as to think of it as the baseline for normal. That’s a problem.

Unfortunately, children absorb a lot of what they see and experience. If they keep seeing action movies with buff, white male protagonists, they can’t imagine women or minorities being the hero. If they see one “token” minority character who is present to take the brunt of the jokes, they might start thinking it’s fine to make fun of the different kid at school. Kids learn by example. Where parents leave gaps, the world fills it in. We just want to be sure they’re filling it in with the right stuff.

If we need to teach such lessons through cartoon animals, then so be it.

Spoilery Section:

This is the review section. Here there be spoilers. You have been warned.

This film plays on expectations, as much for the kids’ sake as for adults. Predators vs. prey is not always clear cut. In fact, SUPER DUPER SPOILER ALERT……. it’s the prey that is the villain (no doubt a fear response against a perceived threat from predators). There’s a lot of smart political, socioeconomics at play here. I’d liken it to how some countries feud with others in anticipation of an attack, thereby creating the problem to begin with, but I don’t want to get political here.

There are a few minor missteps with the racism theme that I think go a bit too far. One is where Clawhauser calls Judy a cute bunny, and she gets all uncomfortable and says how only bunnies can call each other cute. Then later, when Nick is playing with the Assistant Mayor’s hair/wool, Judy freaks out and tells him, “You can’t touch a sheep’s wool!” These are both real-world examples of complicated race-tensions that felt a little awkward in this movie. It could have been accomplished otherwise. Maybe someone else wouldn’t think so. I’d need a second opinion.

What might seem like a misstep (but is actually an integral plot point and teaching tool) is after Officer Hopps has solved the case, she says things that are taken out of context in a press conference. She infers that predators are naturally prone to becoming “savage” (aka dangerous), and although she is just repeating information another character told her about how the animals were going crazy, she says the wrong thing to a crowd of fearful reporters who all happen to be prey animals. Good intentions but poor execution lead to Judy accidentally starting an extreme racist reaction to predators in general. One of her buddies even loses his position on the police force because “nobody wants to see a predator when they walk into the ZPD.”

These moments echo so powerfully the irrational fears against minorities that are the root of the problem. Judy only realizes belatedly how her words were taken to the extreme, and resigns in protest.

Zootopia was such a fantastic movie that doesn’t have to talk down to kids to be enjoyable. If you haven’t gotten a chance yet, I suggest you go see it yourself.