Zootopia is “surprisingly articulate.” And that patronizing compliment is one of the best parts of the movie, and the clearest sign that the filmmakers had something more sophisticated to say than I’d expected. It seems weirdly appropriate that a movie I’d initially dismissed as unimaginative and uninteresting would turn out to be a mature and distressingly contemporary parable about prejudice.
In my defense, early marketing didn’t give us a lot to go on. It looked like the entire premise of the movie was: “Wouldn’t it be wacky if there were a whole city full of animals who walk and talk like humans do?!” It seemed as if the Walt Disney Company were releasing a movie with no prior knowledge of the work of the Walt Disney Company.
But after a charming and well-delivered version of the Standard Disney Believe-In-Your-Dreams® Formula, Zootopia immediately sets to work dismantling that formula and then putting it back together again as something with more heft and complexity to it than just an empty aphorism. This is a movie where the hero’s kind and loving parents advise her in the first scene that she should give up on her dreams. The hero’s begrudging partner explicitly says that the idea that you can be anything you want is unrealistic nonsense.
Most importantly, we see Hopps going through her whole journey of overcoming adversity — complete with training montage! — and showing everyone that they shouldn’t assume what she’s capable of, just because she’s a bunny. And almost immediately afterwards, she’s flinging out micro-aggressions at a fox as if she were no better than some ignorant elephant!
Zootopia isn’t a subtle movie, but these aren’t subtle times. Apparently a lot of people need to be explicitly reminded of the things we were taught in kindergarten. What’s most impressed me about the movie is that it explicitly states its message over and over, but it doesn’t come across as dogmatic or self-important, and it doesn’t get in the way of its being a pretty solid detective story. The more I think about it, the more I see how cleverly it’s constructed and how it’s actually pretty transgressive.
It’s fantastic to see Disney Feature Animation using their hugely successful blockbuster hits to take risks with the Disney formula. Frozen (which is the butt of a pretty clever gag in Zootopia) was a movie about princesses that rejected the idea of love at first sight as dangerously naive, instead emphasizing the family that most Disney princesses tend to abandon to get their happy endings.
Zootopia sets up its premise in the very first scene: animals have evolved past their predator and prey relationships. It then spends the rest of its story showing its characters and the audience how many stereotypes they still hold onto. Some of the gags are pretty corny or in danger of passing their expiration date — an extended parody of The Godfather, a cute Fennec Fox who’s actually a deep-voiced adult, an animal nudist colony — but almost every one is another play on that idea of holding onto stereotypes that don’t apply. Even the stoner yak who turns out to have a better memory than an elephant.
Richard Scarry’s Cars And Trucks And Things That Perpetuate Systematic Discrimination
I call that “transgressive” for a couple of reasons. First is that it’s not how anthropomorphized animal stories are supposed to work. People have been using animals as stand-ins for humans for as long as stories have existed, but every example that I’m familiar with handles it in one of two ways: either the fact that they’re animals is arbitrary and mostly ignored, used only to make the story universally appealing, as in Richard Scarry’s books and the early Mickey Mouse cartoons; or it takes advantage of our inherent perception of the animals to make a satirical point, like the pigs in Animal Farm or the cats and mice in Maus.
Zootopia cleverly splits the difference. The entire story is based on the premise that the characters’ “animalness” is arbitrary, but then it presents one example after another of how our perception of inherent traits is so deeply ingrained that it’s almost inescapable. In the world of the story, the predator/prey distinction has become meaningless, but it’s still the one that all the characters fall back on. All the adversity that Hopps overcomes at the start of the movie has nothing to do with being a prey animal (her gruff and unsympathetic boss is a water buffalo) and everything to do with size. But when she’s put on the spot to come up with an explanation for the “mystery,” she asserts that it must have something to do with predators and might even have some biological origin.
Which leads to the other aspect of the story that I’d call transgressive: none of the characters are allowed to be exempt. Hopps’s parents are kind and completely sympathetic, but they’re also undeniably bigots. Hopps repeatedly demonstrates how she “gets it” intellectually, but when she’s pushed into a conflict or presented with something she can’t explain, she falls back on her stereotypes. Nick’s character has internalized the discrimination and let it define him; it’s a solid example of how defeatist cynicism so often disguises itself as “being realistic.”
When I first heard the term “intersectionality”, I thought it was a fantastic way to move forward in how we think about discrimination and civil rights. Then I found out how it’s actually used in practice. I’ve never seen it used to promote empathy or shared humanity, but only in terms of oppression, victimization, and guilt. Instead or being something positive, I’ve only ever seen it presented as a way to make sure that everyone, no matter what struggle they’ve been through, can have something they should feel bad about.
I think Zootopia presents a more optimistic take on the concept, by repeatedly setting up an obvious one-to-one metaphor and then subverting it. The story of Hopps could clearly be taken as a parable about feminism, but then nobody puts any emphasis on gender (her demanding drill sergeant is a polar bear with a female voice). The central tension of predators vs prey seems to correspond exactly with racism against African Americans, but, unlike Maus for example, it flips our assumptions about oppressors vs. oppressed.
One of the most clever sequences has Hopps pursuing a crook into a neighborhood populated entirely by small rodents. It comes very soon after we’ve seen her fighting against the stereotype that she can’t be “a real cop” because she’s too small, and now she’s a giant, in danger of knocking over buildings and stomping on terrified citizens.
The story refuses to let any of the characters settle into a role as purely a victim of oppression or purely an oppressor. It stresses that kindness, empathy, and cooperation are the only way to fight prejudice, ignorance, and fear.
Not All Sloths
Of course, I’m projecting my own beliefs onto the movie. Middle-aged white guy Merlin Mann took to Twitter to make fun of middle-aged thinkpiece-writing white guys like myself:
Thanks for your thinkpiece on Zootopia. What a pity it'd be for kids not to hear a middleaged white guy's take on cartoon animal sex & race.
— Merlin Mann (@hotdogsladies) March 7, 2016
To which I respond: suck it. Even if you don’t buy the premise that comics and animation have become the modern parable and myth-making, the dismissive idea that “cartoons” are only relevant to kids is weak, tired, and so very, very old. On top of that, the level of public discourse around the themes that Zootopia addresses has become a travesty of progressivism. We could probably use some cartoon animals to set us straight.
While the movie isn’t subtle, it does leave a bit of room for interpretation. Two interpretations I disagree with are reviews by Matt Zoeller Seitz on RogerEbert.com, and Scott Renshaw in Salt Lake City Weekly. (Who are, coincidentally, also middle-aged white guys). I only found Renshaw’s review because his is one of the very few negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and he’s getting a ton of undeserved flak from that, because people on the internet tend to be ridiculously and obnoxiously defensive and abusive. (As evidence, see my telling a stranger to “suck it” because he made fun of guys like me and posts like this one).
In any case, Seitz says that the movie is too open for interpretation:
“Zootopia” pretty much rubber-stamps whatever worldview parents want to pass on to their kids, however embracing or malignant that may be. I can imagine an anti-racist and a racist coming out of this film, each thinking it validated their sense of how the world works.
Which implies a sort of moral relativism that simply doesn’t exist in the movie. For one thing, the story rejects the idea of “a racist” or “an anti-racist.” It portrays discrimination as behavior, not an identifier. It suggests that we can all be simultaneously on the giving and receiving end of it. I feel that so much of what passes for progressivism these days treats oppression, prejudice, and discrimination as perpetual states of being instead of injustices that we can work together to correct.
And the movie absolutely doesn’t stop at saying “we’re all a bit culpable” and leave it at that. There are most definitely bad guys. It acknowledges that prejudice is motivated just as often by fear as it is by malice, and the bad guys are the ones who manipulate that fear to drive us apart. Which is why the movie’s message is so depressingly relevant for 2016.
Both reviewers conclude that the movie’s message gets muddled because it simultaneously says that stereotypes are bad, and then relies on stereotypes for its gags. Renshaw writes:
It’s even more confusing when it starts to feel that Zootopia is working against its own message to get easy laughs. One extended sequence is set at the animal equivalent of the DMV, which is staffed entirely by slow-moving sloths. It’s a decent-enough idea, until you realize that it’s based on a stereotype […] For a movie built entirely around “don’t judge an animal by its species,” there’s also plenty of “a leopard can’t change its spots.”
While Seitz describes it:
The film isn’t wrong to say that carnivores are biologically inclined to want to eat herbivores, that bunnies reproduce prolifically, the sloths are slow-moving (they work at the DMV here), that you can take the fox out of the forest but you can’t take forest out of the fox, and so on. […] This all seems clever and noble until you realize that all the stereotypes about various animals are to some extent true, in particular the most basic one: carnivores eat herbivores because it’s in their nature.
This complaint seems wrong to me on two levels: just on the surface, it seems like what would happen if Aesop took his stuff to the internet and had a thousand of us middle-aged white men pointing out that actually, foxes don’t enjoy grapes, so his entire premise is invalid.
The entire premise of the movie is that the carnivore/herbivore relationship doesn’t exist anymore, so it’s a completely artificial distinction that’s dangerously foolish for the characters to cling to. If you’re going to take issue with that, you might as well take issue with the idea of animals talking and wearing clothes.
You might even say that this lack of a predator/prey relationship is what makes this an ideal fictional city, as suggested by the movie’s diabolically subtle title.
And again, I think what makes the movie so remarkable is that it teaches a lesson about prejudice by showing us repeatedly how our own prejudices work against the story’s main premise. They start the story by saying (explicitly), “here’s the setup,” and then go on knowing that the audience won’t be able to fully buy into the setup.
If you look at the complaint deeper, though, it gets at why I think Zootopia is a more mature and sophisticated allegory than I’d given it credit for, even while I was watching it and enjoying it. Yes, there are indeed a lot of gags based on the animals behaving like animals. But I don’t see it as “leopards can’t change their spots.” In the context of a story about discrimination, it’s a symbol of cultural identity and a rejection of whitewashing.
The sloths are a shaky example, since it really is played more for laughs than anything else, and it isn’t subverted until the very end of the movie. But it gets a pass since it’s such a good scene, and kind of a masterpiece of comic timing.
For all the other examples, though, the movie acknowledges the differences but is careful not to place any value judgments on them. The bunnies do reproduce prolifically, the wolves can’t help but howl in unison, the polar bears enjoy the cold, hamsters like going through habitrails, and the movie doesn’t find anything wrong with any of that.
It makes a distinction between traits that are limiting and those that are a part of our identity. The gentlest character in the movie is a cheetah cop who loves doughnuts and idolizes a gazelle. It’s a valuable reminder that rejecting the preconceived notions of how we judge each other doesn’t mean rejecting everything that makes us unique.
That’s as good an opportunity as any to point out how great the character animation is throughout. I’m ambivalent towards the character design and environmental design in general — it’s well done and pleasant if not particularly spectacular. But the character animation hooked me from the first scene, with the wide-eyed kids nervously waiting for their cues as they presented the school play. It was just plain delightful to see Hopps insist that “cute” is derogatory for bunnies, and then spend the rest of the movie stamping her foot like Thumper when she got excited, or wrinkling her nose whenever she was curious.
I’m sure I’m being completely unfairly dismissive of the work that went into the character design; it had so many opportunities to go wrong, as is evidenced by the horrific background dancers for pop star Gazelle, which I’m against on the strongest possible terms.