In an early scene from Disney’s “Zootopia,” rabbit protagonist Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) looks up at a police department receptionist (a cheetah voiced by Nate Torrence) with a strained smile. “Ooh, uh, you probably didn’t know,” she says, “but, a bunny can call another bunny cute, but when other animals do it it’s a little…” She trails off, but the cheetah gets her meaning – as does the audience. “Zootopia” is a movie that tries to start conversations about everything from microaggressions to the roots of systemic oppression, using prejudice between different species of anthropomorphized animals as a metaphor.
The film is set in a world where predator and prey have set aside their differences and now live together harmoniously, apart from still-existing prejudices between both groups. The plot follows Judy Hopps, a young rabbit who leaves the farm she was raised on to move to the titular city of Zootopia to start her career as the city’s first rabbit police officer. Despite facing intolerance from her fellow police officers, mostly water buffalos, elephants, rhinos and other animals several times her size, she teams up with a street- smart fox (“Nick Wilde,” voiced by Jason Bateman) and winds up solving a huge missing persons—that is, missing mammals—case in two days. She also finds herself entangled in trying to find the cause of certain predatory animals “going savage” —i.e. returning to their, well, animalistic states. Along the way, she makes friends, learns valuable lessons and discovers that if we all look past our differences, anyone can be anything.
The problem with the prejudice allegory in “Zootopia” is that it’s confusing. For one thing, while it seems to want to talk about systemic oppression since it’s obvious that every animal in the society deals with being stereotyped based on both their species and on whether they are predator or prey, the prejudices in the film’s world really do “go both ways,” where prejudices in real life don’t.
The film’s first two acts focus mainly on Zootopia’s systemic discrimination against prey animals – from Judy constantly being told she can’t be a police officer because she’s a rabbit to the sheep assistant mayor being treated more like a secretary – but the final act focuses mainly on systemic discrimination against predatory animals, who are viewed as “savage” and scary. This isn’t exactly analogous to real-life systems of oppression; there’s no ruling class here, and the implication is that everyone struggles against the same kinds of discrimination. Basically, in Zootopia reverse racism is real, muddying the film’s perspective on real issues. And that’s not even mentioning the few troubling instances of real-world racist, sexist and fatphobic stereotypes; one of the very few characters with a Black voice actor is a hustler who threatens to beat up Nick, for example, and the cheetah mentioned earlier is subject to more than a few fat phobic jokes.
Taken by itself, though, the film is certainly a good jumping-off point for conversations, especially in the context of a children’s movie. There are a lot of individual moments that are clever or subversive; in addition to the scene mentioned earlier that’s a nod to the discussion around reclaiming slurs, there’s a scene where Judy admonishes Nick for touching a sheep’s wool, and one where a deer pulls her child closer after a tiger sits down next to them on the subway, giving him a distrusting glance. Microaggressions are a concept that the general public still seems to be struggling with, so it’s refreshing to see them and to see their importance validated in any media, particularly a children’s movie.
And the film is certainly entertaining. It’s visually stunning, for the most part. True, some of the female characters, including Judy, suffer from Disney’s infamous “same-face syndrome,” i.e. many of them have the exact same facial structure, but that’s made up for by the incredible level of detail put into them. The diverse animal cast is beautifully rendered, right down to Judy’s realistic nose twitches and a random elephant character’s henna tattoos. And the sorts of clever moments that come from all sorts of animals living as people abound – the DMV is staffed by sloths, hamsters scurry from office building to office building via colorful tubes, a weasel thief is too slippery to catch. It’s all very fun.
The city of Zootopia itself is gorgeous and well- designed, with architecture that looks exactly how you’d expect a New York City created by animals to look. We’re treated to a gorgeous two-minute extended view of the whole thing – which surprisingly wasn’t a trailer shot – with Shakira as pop artist Gazelle singing in the background. In addition to neighborhoods with names like The Rainforest and Little Rodentia, a distinctly Parisian area where mice and gerbils live, we get the city’s center, which makes skyscrapers interesting by giving them all different shapes, colors, and sizes. If only the film’s message was as clear as Zootopia’s skyline.