In this podcast, Søren and Ben discuss Disney’s animated film, Zootopia. Be sure to scroll down and read more about their respective opinions in more detail.
I didn’t see Zootopia coming. Sure it seemed to bring the fidelity of 3D animation to new heights; sure it featured an excellent cast of some of my favorite actors. But if you’d asked me if Walt Disney Animation was going to tackle the nuances of power structures in both gender and race through cleverly disguised metaphors, I’d have laughed at you.
The joke’s on me. Zootopia tackles a wild range of issues. Racial bias among the police? Representation for underrepresented groups? Gender-based discrimination in the workplace? It’s all there, and it’s all handled with finesse.
Importantly, the animal metaphor never holds to one definition. Are the predators meant to be men, and the prey women? A terrifying scene where a fox violently assaults Hopps would suggest as much. At the same time, female predators pop up throughout the movie, as do male prey. Are predators meant to represent black folks and other minority groups? The political rhetoric about them bears a stark connection to the superpredator theory of the 1990s—but a role-reversal scene where Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman, a fox) can’t help but touch Bellwether’s (Jenny Slate, a sheep) wool hair clearly alludes to a real world microaggression against black people.
This complex metaphor means there’s room for misinterpretation, but I came away deeply satisfied because the message always seems to be on the right side of social thought. One of my favorite moments comes when Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is officially made a part of the police force despite the world asserting she can’t make the cut. Not only do rabbits come out for her swearing-in, but other prey do, too. Whoever Judy represents—women, minority groups—it’s clear her achievement has a huge impact on her peers. Zootopia declares “representation matters” using nothing but visuals.
Every moment is beautiful from top to bottom. Each environment, be it the Iowa-like countryside or the deeply varied cityscape of Zootopia itself, is unbelievably detailed. It feels as if we could step right into this world. Shops are designed to accommodate every shape and size from the tallest giraffes down to the smallest shrews. Elaborate visuals also afford directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush ample room for visual humor; consider the population sign of the bunny-inhabited countryside, which ticks up rapidly (rather than down) as Judy leaves her hometown. It’s notable that the best jokes in the movie come from these subtle gags and not the film’s sharp script.
Judy is the heart and soul of the film. Her animators tweak and manipulate her to communicate the smallest emotional cues. In her big entrance into the city of Zootopia, her ears brush back in wonder as she stares up through a window covered in dew, ice and water. Her nose twitches as she tries to parse the complex political landscape of the city. Her eyes communicate extreme isolation and deep sadness as she slumps back to her bleak apartment after a rough day at work. This scene in particular rang with a humanity I rarely see: a sad TV dinner; neighbors argue next door; overly enthusiastic parents call on video chat to “see how things are going.”
But forget about animation. Leave the metaphors aside. What’s underneath? A simple buddy cop storyline belies a deep emotional partnership between two endearing, deeply flawed leads. Judy and Nick have such chemistry that it was impossible for me not to get swept up in their budding partnership. Even if it was just that, Zootopia would outstrip its peers with ease—but the film is never content with simplicity. Instead it seeks to start a discussion, a goal it’s already met several times over.
Verdict: Movie Win
Zootopia is about a city full of talking animals. Seriously, that’s the pitch, which is probably why I was able to ignore it until this week. And even though Disney did a remarkable job at making Anthropomorphism: The Movie funny and entertaining, what really drove me to the theater was that when I googled Zootopia, the first result was an article titled: “Yes, Disney Made a Movie About White Supremacy and the War on Drugs.”
In fact, Disney does attempt to send a social justice message with Zootopia, something the press has been eager to applaud them for. However, that message is buried under layers of confusing metaphors and oversimplification, which left me confused instead of motivated.
I’ll let the film’s plot explain: Zootopia is about a bunny who becomes a police officer, despite being told by her parents that there could never be a bunny cop. She moves to the big city and becomes embroiled in a conspiracy involving classes of animals “going savage,” which she blames on their biology, before uncovering the convoluted government plot that brought the crisis on.
While I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad idea to teach kids about prejudice through ham-fisted analogies, Zootopia is operating on a level of thematic complexity that left me, an educated adult, scratching my head. I can’t imagine that it had any real impact on the children in the audience. Who is the oppressed group here? Bunnies? Prey? It would certainly seem that way, considering our protagonist’s “You can’t be a cop” origin story and stern finger-wagging at animals of other species who call her “cute.”
But then why is it the prey who are inciting race riots using an absurd parallel to crack cocaine? Or is it the predators, whom the film so overtly points out are a minority and are accused of having “aggressive biology”? If so, why are they the ones in power at the start of the film? And why would this movie attempt to draw attention to systemic racism and the war on drugs, only to make the main character a heroic police officer?
While some journalists are praising Zootopia’s timeliness in an age of police brutality and xenophobia, I’m left wondering if this film, with its all-white executive production staff and mostly white cast, really addresses these things at all. Or perhaps this was the point all along—to create a film that ostensibly traffics in social justice, only to muddle the message to such a degree that it can still benefit from the controversy without pointing a single finger.
Verdict: Movie Fail