It’s hard to know what to make of this new Disney animated film. There are some great messages in Zootopia and one can view the film as a brilliant political commentary (U.S. politics) and as a positive commentary on various injustices and problems in our present world. But there are also a number of huge counterproductive oversights which suggest the writers didn’t think things through very well. I would say it’s worth watching regardless (which it is) just to see the sloths, but the brilliantly-conceived trailer has already provided that opportunity.
Zootopia begins with an introduction to how mammals have evolved to the point where predators and prey live and work together in peace and harmony, especially in the glorious metropolis of Zootopia, which contains different environments for the different species (and which isn’t quite as perfect as it seems).
Judy Hopps (voice by Ginnifer Goodwin) is a rural bunny whose dream is to make the world a better place by becoming the first rabbit to be a police officer in Zootopia. Everyone scoffs at the idea (and her poor dad is mortified at the thought), but she pulls it off, only to find herself given the task of ‘Meter Maid’. But when she meets a suspicious fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), everything changes and soon Judy has made the world a much worse place, proving that her father was right in saying that chasing your dreams can only lead to unhappiness. The end.
No, no. Of course there’s no way a Disney animated film ends like that, but I won’t say anything more about the plight of specific characters in the film. Instead, I will focus on the themes and larger plot elements, beginning with the reason Judy made the world a worse place. This has to do with a few predators suddenly going ‘savage’. Thanks in part to Judy’s detective work and subsequent speech, all predators are now seen as potential savages who are capable of murder.
I immediately saw this as a possible allusion to the way ISIS represents a small percentage of Muslims who have gone ‘savage’, causing many people to see all Muslims as potential savages. So for me this was a challenge to prejudice, to stereotyping and to how easily we are persuaded to treat the ‘other’ with suspicion. And Zootopia satirizes stereotyping in other ways as well, but at the same time it is full of its own stereotypes, undermining this message.
The film also contains commentary on the plight of female mammals in a male-dominated society, showing how two key characters try to challenge the injustices they experience. However, while one of those characters is treated sympathetically because she chooses to work within the system, the other is soundly condemned (and punished) for taking a more revolutionary (and violent) approach. There’s nothing wrong with condemning violence as a solution, but the lack of compassion for this character’s plight is worrisome, especially in light of the fact that Zootopia’s equivalent of a mob boss, who has the powers-that-be in his pockets, is treated with great sympathy and receives no punishment for his crimes.
And then there’s Zootopia’s emphasis on fear as a way to control the population (relating again to Muslims and terrorists). Condemning such attitudes, which are prevalent in much of the world we live in, is a very good thing. But the film no sooner satirizes the evil of using fear in this way when the film’s heroes collude in using fear (and torture) to gain the knowledge they need to solve the crime. That is inexcusably bad writing and the film’s worst example of not thinking things through.
Zootopia could have been a classic. And I thoroughly enjoyed most of it, especially the clever funny dialogue that is aimed at adults as much as children, the great voice work, the gorgeous animation (which being made-for-3D somehow didn’t impact in a negative way), the pleas for inclusivity and for trying to make a difference in the world and the concluding statement that change begins with each of us. Some excellent stuff there. But the inconsistencies described above make me feel generous in giving Zootopia ***+ (but I will do so anyway). My mug is up, but the flavours inside are somewhat incompatible.