ZOOTOPIA Review: A Muddled Mess of Racial Messaging… And Cute Animals

Disney's most Dreamworksian movie has a lot to say.

This review contains mild spoilers for Zootopia.

Animals are great for allegory. Their representative nature - the sneakiness of snakes, the sleepiness of sloths, the industriousness of ants - allow storytellers to get to the heart of their message quickly and in a way that is almost subconscious. We all know the characteristics of a rabbit or a fox, and we understand their relationship in nature. From there the allegory can build something else, using those creatures to set the stage and to distance the audience from the moral enough that it can sneak past their defenses. It’s the entire premise of fables - these morality stories operate on enough levels that we can absorb the moral without feeling lectured.

But the allegory can be a dangerous beast in its own right, especially as it grows complicated - or as it attempts to approach more complicated concepts. You need to be a master to control the seeming simplicity of telling a political story with barnyard animals; just ask George Orwell. That control seems to evade the filmmakers behind Disney’s Zootopia, a charming enough movie that finds itself knee deep in a metaphorical mess.

As explained in a number of exposition-heavy world-building speeches, Zootopia is a city where all the animals (mammals, anyway) came together to build a new world in harmony. Once predators stalked the prey in the jungles and forests but in Zootopia - with its twelve different biome districts, including Tundra Town and Sahara Square - they have lived in anthropomorphized peace for centuries. But what appears to be a beautiful mosaic from the outside is actually a city riddled with ancient uneasiness between species, uneasiness that is about to boil over in violent ways.

Yes, this is a Disney movie! Zootopia is possibly the strangest of the new breed of Disney Animation films, one that makes explicit fun of Frozen, one that traffics in the kind of non-stop pop culture references you expect from a Shrek movie, and one that puts political messaging way, way ahead of emotional beats. It’s actually mostly successful in these things - it’s hipper attitude is earned, its references are clever instead of cloying and its politics are, on the surface, unimpeachable - but there’s a central problem that the film never quite overcomes. Its allegory is fundamentally, fatally flawed.

 Early in the picture I thought the racial allegory would find the prey - who historically suffered at the hands of the predators - as the minority group, especially since the lead character, Judy Hopps, is the first bunny to ever enter the Zootopia police force, and she does it as part of the new ‘Mammal Inclusion Initiative.’ It looks like affirmative action! But that isn't the case; in the city of Zootopia the predators are a minority - they only make up 10% of the population, we’re told at one point - but they seem to be well-integrated into the world. The mayor is a lion, after all. 

What happens is that a rash of disappearing predator cases ends up being the result of a strange scenario wherein predators go ‘savage’ - they no longer walk on two legs, they lose their intelligence and they start trying to kill tiny fluffy little prey animals. Believe it or not this is all an allegory for the crack epidemic (this honestly might be the weirdest Disney movie of all time), and the animals going savage destroys Zootopia’s peace between the species. One very pointed scene has a bunny mom pulling her little bunny kids closer when a tiger sits next to them on the subway. The film tries to give us a nuanced understanding of how this sort of prejudice works - we can see the pain on the tiger’s face while we also understand the bunny’s fear (this is honestly turning out to be one of the odder reviews I’ve ever written).

But the film fails its messaging, and it fails because it builds its entire allegorical premise on a flawed foundation: the minorities are predators. Predators eat prey. This is their relationship, and we in the audience understand it as such. Yes, the bunny should be pulling her kids away from the tiger. The tiger is demonstrably, historically dangerous. He has evolved to be dangerous to her.

Recent political coverage has replayed an old speech by Hillary Clinton, one from the 90s when the crack epidemic was rotting our cities from within, when crime was out of hand and when the president stepped in with a crime bill that would create decades of misery for black communities. In the clip she talks about ‘super predators,’ about heartless black kids walking the streets and killing people without remorse, without humanity.

Are you starting to see the problem with making your minority group predators?

Racists appeal to sham biology to make their points about which group is inferior, and Zootopia - believe it or not - actually deals with this. At one point Judy Hopps talks about how predators are biologically given to violent behavior, and it’s really offensive to her predator friends but get this - she’s right. In the context of the allegorical world being built she is 100% correct. In the past predators did kill other animals as part of their biological imperative. They do come from a heritage of violence and savagery. Despite the film’s attempt to make the appeal to biology look wrong, its allegorical base affirms the most racist assumptions about black people - they come from savagery. They have these instincts in their blood. By making the African-American analogue in the film ACTUAL PREDATORS, Zootopia is backing up Hillary Clinton’s ‘super predators’ remarks.

Again and again the film talks about predators and savagery - it’s like listening to a right wing radio show from the South. Now, I don’t think this is on purpose - Zootopia is clearly coming from a well-meaning place with its racial allegories - but it becomes impossible to ignore. It becomes even harder to ignore after a lengthy parody of The Godfather, which trafficks entirely in tedious Italian stereotypes (good thing Judy Hopps only needs to go to the mob for help, and not say, a banker). It’s clear that the filmmakers - there are a whopping seven people with story credit and two with screenplay credit, and three directors - had no control over their metaphors. They never considered what it meant to present the unfairly maligned minority as actually dangerous animals.

They also double down on it in weird ways - a chase scene in the Museum of Natural History shows a diorama that features a savage, predatory jungle cat being battled by what appear to be mice holding spears. The message here is that the prey evolved first, perhaps taming the predators. In a movie that is full of expository world-building (which the movie takes seriously, by the way) no one bothers to deliver a line of dialogue explaining that maybe predators and prey came together out of common interest, or that a forward-thinking predator renounced the carnivorous lifestyle. The film’s unspoken (and likely unconsidered) message is that the minorities were once dangerous but have now been civilized.

Of course the muddled metaphors that permeate Zootopia can leave much open to interpretation. One critic friend thinks the movie is about Islam, although saying that Muslims are evolved from savages and have savagery in their blood certainly doesn’t do the film any extra favors*. I tend to think that Zootopia itself is explicitly America - it’s the place all animals can come, be equal and can achieve anything (they’re told. The film throws some shade at the American dream along the way) - and that the strife-filled history between predators and prey can only be mapped onto black/white relations in this country.

If that larger metaphor isn’t quite confused enough there’s another one running through the movie - Judy Hopps’ entry into the Zootopia police force reflects women entering traditionally male careers (she is initially forced to be a meter maid). This actually muddies up the larger metaphor because within the police precinct the predators and prey mingle, the only difference being that Judy is a very small member of the prey family. Her chief, for instance, is a big hulking water buffalo. He’s technically prey, but he certainly looks and acts like a traditional predator. Except that some predators are small - like oxes and foxes - and so the story strand that sees Judy and the assistant mayor - a confused sheep - bonding over ‘little guys versus big guys’ only adds a layer of complexity to the allegory that I think the film can’t quite sustain.

Again, I’m not accusing the filmmakers of inserting sinister messages, but rather with taking on too big a metaphor for their own good. Perhaps the ultimate example of this is the character arc of Nick Wilde, the hustler fox who becomes Judy’s unwilling partner in the missing predators case. Nick conforms to the ‘sly fox’ stereotype not because that’s who he is but because early in his life he learned that everyone would only ever see him as a sly fox. If he was to be treated as a criminal all the time, why not just act like a criminal? It’s an affecting examination of how minor stereotyping and prejudicial attitudes can seriously impact the life of a young person… and it’s in the middle of a movie where every single animal behaves either in stereotypical ways for their species (ie, the population of Bunny Boro is ever escalating by the second or wolves are dumb pack animals who howl uncontrollably or sheep are meek) or makes jokes about how they are not like their stereotypical images (an elephant with a bad memory). The film wants to have its racial messaging while eating its cute animal movie cake at the same time. It’s not that it’s bad or evil - it’s just confused. It’s not well-controlled.

You could say that I’m reading too much into the film, but I think that Zootopia is wearing all of this stuff on its sleeve. Even the crack epidemic stuff is made explicit in a sequence that heavily, thuddingly references Breaking Bad (yes, a different drug but you get the point). And you may say that I shouldn’t be trying to draw so many direct lines between our world and that of Zootopia, but again - the movie asking me to! It’s jam-packed with references to and analogues of our modern world, from the Hoof Locker to a bootleg of Pig Hero 6. The animals use iPads and watch funny videos on their phones. They drive familiar-looking vehicles and they call Zuber to pick them up when they don’t have access to an SUV. They listen to Everybody Hurts (the original recording, not even a funny animal rerecording) when they get sad. This isn’t a world totally imagined from whole cloth, it’s our world, with anthropomorphic animals in our place. It isn’t Animal Farm, where the political message is laid over the animals, but rather a movie where the animals are laid over the political message. You could take the animals out of Zootopia, make the predators black and the prey white and without changing much else end up with a pretty reasonable hard-boiled cop story that takes on corruption and racism in the highest echelons of government.

Again, it’s admirable that Disney made a movie tackling this stuff - racism, the crack epidemic, how the authorities use fear of minorities to keep the majority population in line - and that they’re releasing it during the election year when Donald Trump is fucking WINNING, but admirable isn’t enough. The film bites off more than it can coherently chew, and while kids won’t notice the mess, I would hate to think of a child being raised on a message that explicitly codes minorities as predators.

By now you’re probably fed up with all of this political stuff (although bad news, Zootopia is a super political movie) and you want to know about the rest of the film. Is it funny? Sure, pretty much. Are the characters good? I quite enjoyed Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy, whose enthusiasm is tested by a world more complicated than she ever expected, and I really liked Jason Bateman as Nick, the hustler fox who, duh, has a heart of gold. How is the story? It’s shockingly complex, and it’s actually a solid noir-ish type tale, including visits to a sorta strip club/sex den and a mental institution. It's about drugs. It may actually be a touch dark for the youngest kids. How is the animation and design? It’s good! I’m sure the film breaks all kinds of records for hairs and whiskers, but I didn’t notice that. I did notice that the animal designs feel like classical two-legged animals with some modern spins on them.

The movie is missing the emotional center that made Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen instant classics, though. It’s very plot-oriented, it’s very caught up in its own metaphors and messages, and so the relationship between Judy and Nick feels like it’s hitting checkmarks instead of being an organic, growing thing. I’m a sucker for tearing up and crying at movies - especially these Disney and Pixar films - and I never even got verklempt once. Zootopia feels like it has too much to say and can’t waste time with the characters. Although it’s very happy to waste time on an extended parody of the wedding in The Godfather.

To those about to get angry in the comments: I think it’s important that a film like Zootopia is taken seriously because it presents itself seriously. This is a film with much to say, and I have done it the greatest respect in listening. I believe that while what it had to say was admirable, and that while the way it says it on the surface seems clever, a small amount of consideration reveals a weak allegory that sags under its own weight. To not confront that would be dismissive of the film and the form.

* But follow this reading to the end, and spoiler alert: if the predators are Muslims, then the mayor/president is a Muslim. We have Obama the Muslim, and what's more, in the film the mayor takes unilateral action to secretly imprison the predators who have gone savage - Zootopia's version of Gitmo. He even gives a speech about doing the wrong things for the right reasons, definitely a commentary on the War on Terror, if you're reading this whole thing as a Muslim metaphor. If you're reading the predators as African-American the imprisonment becomes a discussion of our penal system, which unfairly and unevenly punishes blacks. Like I said, this movie doesn't have control of its metaphors.