This blog is about the new movie ‘Zootopia.’ There are MAJOR spoilers. Do not read this if you do not want to know what happens in the movie. I am going to talk about both major plot points and the mid-movie plot twist. You have been warned.
We saw ‘Zootopia’ last weekend and I fully intended to write my review of it today since I am in between series. I am struggling with that plan. I’m not sure what to say about it. The film starts as a typical Disney “live your dreams” plot, but morphs part-way through into something completely different. I’m not sure if it is brilliant or disturbing. It may, in fact, be both.
‘Zootopia’ starts out as a fairly formulaic, family friendly version of the buddy cop movie. An underappreciated police officer gets a lead on the biggest case of her career and heads off to investigate in order to prove herself to her superiors. She finds unlikely and unwilling help in the form of a street wise conman and they form a partnership to solve the crime. Hijinks, banter, and derring-do ensue. Despite all odds this odd couple do what the rest of the police cannot and save the day. The underappreciated cop gets the recognition she deserves and the conman decides to turn his life around. As I said, formulaic. Except that isn’t the end.
At its heart ‘Zootopia’ is a movie about racism. Judy Hopps, the protagonist, is told her whole life that she cannot be a police officer because she is a rabbit. Rabbits are small, weak, and dumb. They are best suited for farming and making more rabbits. Nick Wilde, her sidekick, has been similarly judged. As a fox, he has been told how untrustworthy and dishonest he is. Since he has been given no opportunity to be otherwise he has chosen to live into the stereotype. These are our two unlikely heroes and from the beginning they are facing social obstacles even larger than the criminals who are kidnapping citizens. And it is this obstacle that takes center stage after the missing animals are found. The subtle racism of the society explodes in a calculated move to set predator versus prey.
The media is quick to blame the violence of the recovered animals on their genetic predisposition to hunt. All predatory animals are vilified and removed from positions of authority. Panic rules the streets and animals are targeted, not for anything they have done, but for their species. This is revealed to be the point of the whole crime and our unlikely duo manage to uncover the whole plot. Life returns to normal and in true Disney fashion a happy ending presents itself.
This is not our typical Disney fare. These are subjects that we avoid in children’s movies. The trope of the underdog overcoming society is fairly standard in children’s media. However addressing the fact that the underdog is unfairly persecuted because of race is something that is not common. For Disney, not known for racially progressive movies, to enter this discussion so boldly is unexpected. ‘Zootopia’ is sobering in its realism in a world where we live with terrorist attacks based on religion and nationality. It is also reminiscent of the political debates taking place on the electoral stage where entire groups of people are being labeled as dangerous not because of anything they have done, but for their origins. It’s impressive for a movie that was started three years ago before any of this was part of the national discussion.
As one might suspect, extremists on the left and the right have already started to weigh in on the movie.
The voices on the left claim that making the violent predators the minority only reinforces racial stereotyping. The voices on the right claim that targeting the predatory animals in power encourages is a call for an attack on white power. I have read all sorts of reviews using the phrases “political activism”, “social commentary”, “brainwashing”, and (my personal favorite) “the myth of white privilege”. Disney has managed with this film to tap into something bigger than itself. It has sparked conversations not only in the media, but in car rides home from the theater. What’s more I absolutely think they knew what they were doing.
When Judy Hoppes finally achieves her goal of becoming a police officer she is immediately put on parking patrol. She complains that she is ready for ‘real’ police work and Police Chief Bogo responds, ‘Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and your insipid dreams magically come true. So Let It Go.’ This is our clue that ‘Zootopia’ is going to be something different. While it is a far cry from realistic (Hello! Talking animals.), it taps into our very real world and our very real problems. Unfortunately the hate crimes in our world cannot be linked to a criminal mastermind drugging people to be the most violent versions of themselves. Our society’s hatred is not chemical, but emotional. As such it is much less easy to eradicate. Maybe, just maybe, starting the conversation with our children early on is a good way to start eliminating it.