So I Just Saw Zootopia

You don’t expect a children’s movie to tackle the subjects of racism and implicit bias, but, well, here we are.

I had heard ever since it came out that Zootopia was a quality Disney movie easily on level with early era Pixar (as someone who grew up watching Pixar movies, it’s weird to realize that that studio’s been around long enough to have distinct eras).  I honestly didn’t expect that to be the case based on the trailers I saw (I think Disney has developed a sneaky habit of obscuring the central idea of any given movie, especially if it’s a progressive one, in its marketing so that people who might be turned off by the idea of a kids’ movie about racism go to see it anyway), but I guess I should learn to have higher expectations of more recent Disney fare.

The story follows Judy Hopps, a bunny who dreams of becoming a police officer in the animal city of Zootopia, and her erstwhile partner Nick Wilde, a fox who skirts the law to make a living because no one trusts foxes.  The plot’s modeled on standard buddy cop movies with Judy and Nick working to find a missing otter which leads to them blowing open a larger conspiracy to vilify predators so that certain folks can consolidate power for prey animals in the city.  Through the power of friendship and learning to look past harmful stereotypes, Judy and Nick crack the case and save the city.

Zootopia Poster

Zootopia promotional poster. (Image credit: IMDb)

The dynamic between predator and prey species in the movie is generally subtle; we first see it expressed in the distrust that bunnies have for foxes specifically, which is overt (and which Judy tries to push back against), before we transition to the city where predator and prey animals apparently live in harmony, masking the more systemic divisions (again expressed mostly in the way Nick is distrusted by pretty much everyone).  You have a positive example of a predator holding a position of status with Mayor Lionheart, but if you catalogue the major characters of the movie, he’s the only predator who stands out as an authority (and he’s eventually disgraced for his part in trying to cover up what’s happening to other predators).  Clawhauser, the leopard stationed at the front desk of the ZPD central precinct, is comic relief and something of a chew toy for other officers, and Nick is a con artist.  I get this weird sense that Lionheart’s presence as the mayor is some sort of predator tokenism (and also an easy set up for a lion-and-lamb visual pun with Assistant Mayor Bellwether).  When you add in the fact that most of the criminals and henchmen that Judy and Nick encounter are predators, you start to see how the movie’s playing into an old trope in human stories of casting minorities as a threatening subclass (it’s established that only ten percent of Zootopia’s population are predator species).  It’s only subverted in the last act when Judy and Nick finally piece together who’s behind the predators turning savage.

The obvious metaphor is that predators represent Black people, but it’s not a perfect analogy.  Trappings of Black culture are largely absent from the construction of the world, and the voice cast is overwhelmingly white (Idris Elba and Octavia Spencer are among the cast, but Elba plays the water buffalo chief of police Bogo and Spencer’s role is a regrettably minor one).  A joke about the inappropriateness of hair touching is built around Nick feeling Bellwether’s wool when she’s distracted.  It’s little creative decisions like these that dilute the comparison, probably with the intention of keeping it from becoming so overt that the audience would become uncomfortable.  Of course, a less cynical look at these creative decisions is that Zootopia was made with the intention of being a more intersectional film.

Besides the overt prejudice against predators, you also have the parallel examples of bias against rabbits presented by Judy’s struggles to be taken seriously as a police officer.  This subplot seems designed to reflect the difficulties women face in the workplace; Judy’s stature makes everyone doubt her capability, and she has to repeatedly demonstrate that she’s the best just to get a seat at the table.  We get to see that Judy is better able to sympathize with predators because of her own setbacks, but one of the best moments in the movie comes when she lets her ingrained biases push her to blame predators for what’s happening to them before she and Nick figure out the actual culprit.  Judy is someone who is entirely well-intentioned, but in a moment of insecurity she falls back on narratives she’s heard her whole life.  It’s a good moment that highlights how insidious implicit bias is.

Zootopia is currently on Netflix if you’d like to check it out.  I’d definitely call it an hour and forty minutes well spent.

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