I wasn’t going to see Zootopia. The trailer I saw featured a colorful world of anthropomorphic bipedal animals, mammals all, walking around on their hind legs in an urban environment, chatting on their cell phones and sharing apps and riding around in trains. It looked cute, a fun kids’ movie, but probably a bit one-joke, maybe a little content-free. And then my son saw it, and called it a ‘must-see’ and my wife and I figured we’d give it a shot.
What I did not expect to see was a thoughtful, intelligent allegory about racism and exclusion and prejudice and politics and how fear can lead to a mob mentality. What I did not expect to see was a movie about bullying and violence and how scarring childhood violence can be, even years afterwards.
What we did not expect to see is a movie in which the main character, one of the most plucky, smart, courageous, undaunted female characters I’ve seen in any movie ever, would nonetheless succumb to culturally inherited racism and do tremendous damage to her own society.
It’s a wonderful movie. What it isn’t is a cute Disney kids’ comedy.
Okay, so, Zootopia is set in an idyllic possibly-even-millennial future, where carnivores have overcome their hunting instincts and embrace herbivore lifestyles, where accommodations are made for mammals of every shape and size–very tall drink stands for giraffes, trains with different sized doors–and predators and prey co-exist happily enough.
Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a country bunny, a cute (only ‘cute’ has become racially problematic–rabbits can call each other ‘cute,’ but non-rabbits? Better not.) little rabbit with a winsomely twitching nose, and with the unrealistic dream of becoming a cop. A police officer. Except cops are all predators, or at least very large veggiephiles; chief of police Bogo (Idris Elba) seems to be a cape buffalo. Judy was first in her police academy class, but no one really takes her seriously. But she does land an assignment no one else wants, to find a missing, possibly kidnapped, otter.
To which end, she meets Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox, a street smart, world-weary hustler and con man. Although he exists on the fringes of the law, he considers himself unprosecutable–but Judy goes the Al Capone route with him, nails him for tax evasion, a charge she promises not to pursue if he helps her find the otter. And so, a cop-buddy comedy ensues, a mismatched pair of underfoxbunnies sorting through clues and solving a crime that turns out to be bigger and more widely spread than they first imagined. And becoming ever more unlikely friends.
As they search, we join them in visits to the various Zootopia ecosystems, from tundra to rain forest to savannah. All beautifully realized. And, along the way, we meet Mr. Big, a mafioso vole (wonderfully voiced by Maurice LeMarche), a sheep-run meth lab (where we hear that they have to hurry, as ‘Walter and Jesse’ are on their way), and in my favorite conceit, a DMV office entirely staffed by three-toed sloths. I should also mention the recurring character of Gazelle, a pop star voiced by Shakira, who also sells an app where you can replace her head on your own, as she sings her one big hit, “Try Everything.” Not to mention a bug-infested hippie yak, voiced by Tommy Chong, a chubby feline desk clerk, Clawhouser (Nate Torrance), and assistant mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate), a peculiarly obsequious sheep civil servant, with, it turns out, larger political ambitions of her own.
So, yes, it’s a brightly colored Disney confection, lots of fun. But underneath all of that is the ubiquitous issue of race. And in this film, race is, initially, more about difference than about class or oppression or post-colonialism. Animals have evolved. Predators no longer predate; prey are no longer eaten. Animals live in harmony, and cities clearly take measures to accommodate essentially any mammal, tiny or massive or anything in between.
I don’t want to give away the film’s biggest plot point. But our own culture’s falsest notions about race make an ugly appearance in this film, brought into the narrative by the unlikeliest of characters. By Judy, our plucky, brave, bright-eyed bunny heroine. The film actually raises the idea of biological determinism. Some creatures can’t help themselves, posits Judy (falsely, it turns out). Just as contemporary racists insist that certain racialist characteristics are inborn and fundamental, this film raises the possibility that change, ultimately, is impossible.
Nick, the fox, street-wise and damaged, sees right through it. He knows better–he knows that diversity is strength, or can be, or should be. Not because he’s some kind of liberal weenie idealist, but because that’s what the world has taught him. And eventually Judy figures it out too, and the film has an appropriately happy ending. Still. This is a Disney animated film, for children. And yet, amazingly, also a film about how damaging racism is to us all. And a film in which every character, at some level, is both victim of racism and perpetrator of it.
It’s fun and funny and smart, and of course, it’s Disney; it’s a great looking film. More than that, though, it has intelligent things to contribute to our society’s continuing conversation about race. I was amazed. You will be too.