by Caleb Hartung
“Zootopia” is Disney’s latest movie that touches upon themes deeper than cuddly anthropomorphized animals and a heartwarming plot.
Instead of a generic “be true to yourself” message that has long been a Disney staple, “Zootopia” decides to go a different route and address the problems of racism, sexism, prejudice and xenophobia in the modern world. The resulting product seems like it is meant to be a primer on these issues—a way for people of all ages (kids, parents and even college students) to start talking seriously about what is going on in our current social environment.
To start out, the trailer that hooked most of the film’s potential audience was most likely the one that aired in the previews for Disney’s other hit movie of the year: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” This was the one that featured the two protagonists walking into the DMV to find that the workers are all sloths, who take about 10 years to tell a joke. It was funny the first time, possibly the second time when I saw “Star Wars” again, but when the exact same scene came up in the movie and I could recite every line, it lost its impact. As a marketing tool, showcasing a scene was incredibly effective, but it took away from the overall experience of the movie. Watching the same scene over and over again disconnected the audience from what was going on in the plot.
Luckily, Disney did not choose this scene because it was the funniest in the movie. Personally, every time that seemingly cute Baby Fox opened his mouth, I busted a gut. I was fully expecting to slog through a bunch of immature butt jokes since this is a kid’s movie, but thankfully there were not too many. Some were on a level of maturity even with the subtext.
These jokes that will go over the younger viewers’ heads are often the funniest. For example, in a scene that (semi) subtly addresses police profiling, the police bunny Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) compliments the sly fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) about him being surprisingly “articulate.”
This seems to be a reference to the comment Joe Biden made about President Obama during his 2007 campaign. It is one of several moments where anybody who gets the joke will laugh and then (hopefully) stop themselves and think, “oh…that’s actually not funny at all.” This feeling is an odd one for a Disney movie, but it makes “Zootopia” unique.
Judy Hopps is the vehicle for addressing the majority of these issues. While racism is the primary focus of the subtext, there were definitely some times when I caught some commentary about sexism as well, which is why Hopps is excellent as a female lead protagonist.
Actually, the thing that stood out to me most was something the film decided not to address—the fact that she is female. I think this is fantastically effective. Compare this to the new “Star Wars” protagonist: Rey. They decided to make the “new hope” and focus of the next trilogy a female, but the first film took several moments in the story to overtly enforce her role as a strong female protagonist.
There was more than one time where Finn tries to take Rey’s hand (literally) in some situations, and then Rey has to assert her independence. I realize why this is necessary, just as it might be necessary for the new “Ghostbusters” remake to be made up of an all-female cast. Both of those things are no less annoying due to their over-the-top nature. If the medium of films is truly going to surpass the racist and sexist biases that exist in Hollywood, films need to start making more characters like Hopps—characters that are shown to be strong and not told to be.
The fact that Hopps is a police officer also touches upon the myriad facets of life that racism has corrupted in our society. Due to the highly complex and sensitive subject matter, there are some that might be deeply offended by “Zootopia.” If, like me, you are overly analytical and have to dissect every last detail that flashes up on the screen, be forewarned that this movie is very fluid with its allegories.
There are some that might criticize the film’s seemingly hodge-podge way of using animals to address racism. If I am to play the devil’s advocate for a moment, I would say that the movie lacks consistency in its subtext, which will no doubt confuse the audience at times. When bringing up such a touchy subject as racism in a movie, you can be sure that it will be analyzed, poked and prodded to the point where even the smallest holes will be highlighted.
Some animals are meant to play up their archetypal characteristics (such as the slow sloth), while the sly fox criticizes other characters for automatically thinking that he should act like a sly fox. The duplicity in these messages comes up a lot in “Zootopia.”
Late in the film, when it is established that animals should not be seen as just their stereotypes, the protagonists actively exploit the stereotype of a pack of howling wolves to their advantage. Also, the movie spends several scenes on a parody of “The Godfather.” These are usually funny, but they go against the entire subtext of the film, as Italians have been trying to sever their connection with the stigma of organized crime ever since it appeared.
Also, why are there only mammals in the city of “Zootopia?” Are we supposed to make some connection to the fact that there is always a “reptile section” in zoos, as if they are lesser in any way from the mammals? One character insults another by calling him a “snake,” yet there are no snakes in the film at all! Clearly, there was some kind of reptile genocide by the mammals to make way for their city in this disturbing, twisted universe. And for the record, my ancestors were single-celled organisms that were exploited, oppressed and preyed upon by the ancestors of these mammals. The fact that protists and bacteria aren’t given equal acknowledgement in this film preaching equality is absolutely disgusting and deeply offends me.
Reviews and opinions that mirror the pure bull above—ones that savagely pick apart details and fly into self-righteous rage—are missing the point entirely. Most of the disparity is meant to entice a few laughs and make the material digestible for a younger audience. This film is not meant to be analyzed, but rather to serve as a platform so that people can start a discussion and analyze the issues themselves. The important thing to remember when watching this film is its core intention: to send a message that empathy and a yearning for understanding should come before reflexive hate in any situation.
That being said, I am willing to claim that any negative review for “Zootopia” was written by critics who viewed the film in the exact opposite way than its creators intended. It is not a stunning, flawless masterpiece, but it doesn’t need to be. Something I liked about the movie was that it embraced the etymological roots of the title. The word Utopia is a pun, meaning both “good place” and “no place” at the same time. Both the city and movie of “Zootopia” are neither as bad nor as good as some would claim. It is not “the best movie in the world,” nor is it “an absolute racist mess,” as I’ve seen on some online reviews. The fact that it is able to talk about such dark and gritty issues without being dark and gritty itself like “American History X” is a success in and of itself.
Overall, I would highly recommend “Zootopia,” as it no doubt will spark a meaningful discussion among your family and friends. It is important to know the message beforehand and to immerse yourself in that mindset in order to get the best experience out of the film.
Categories: Volume 97 Issue 10 A&E