Would it surprise you to learn that the top movie at the North American box office, a computer-animated family film made for children, is a nakedly racist allegory, a celebration of the urban police state, and an insult to the entire animal kingdom and the natural world at large?
The premise of Zootopia is simple: a country bunny named Judy (yes, she’s a rabbit) leaves her parents and her hundreds of siblings behind for a life in the big city. The difference between rural and urban living is the first ugly dichotomy the film establishes: farming carrots with your family is framed as a dead-end for losers, while going to the Big Apple to “follow your dreams” is a heroic aspiration. And what does our sweet, fluffy, young dreamer aspire to be? A cop, of course.
Rabbits aren’t the only critters anthropomorphized in the film; most mammals make an appearance playing various social roles. The different species serve as a proxy for old American clichés about race. When Judy is still a schoolchild, there is that one fox kid in town who always harasses her. Worried about the bigger population of foxes in the city, Judy’s parents offer her some pepper spray to ward off potential attackers. They acknowledge that they shouldn’t be afraid of foxes anymore; in this world, predator species no longer eat prey species; they have been properly assimilated (or whatever) so that all species can coexist in harmony. But it’s obvious that despite their lip service, the rabbits are still very afraid of foxes, and Judy takes the spray.
If you pay attention to this scene, it’s clear that the script is joking about rural white people fearing urban black people under the guise of rabbits fearing foxes. Although there are almost no foxes (or other predators) living in the country, we’re told that there are more in the city—but they’re still minorities, making up only 10% of Zootopia’s population. The fact that Judy ends up partnered with a fox (and overcoming her prejudice against foxes by working with him) only proves that the narrative foundation of Zootopia is a black-and-white buddy cop movie, regurgitating outdated stereotypes with a wink to the grown-ups, coating everything in sugar and candy colors for the kids. While the fox (a street hustler) is voiced by the whitest dude in Hollywood, and the film plays on racial jokes outside of a strict rabbit/fox dichotomy (you should never touch a sheep’s wool without asking!), Zootopia still depends on a basic, deeply problematic association: herbivores are like white people, and predators are like racial minorities.
Even worse: once Judy gets to the city, she discovers that some predators have mysteriously reverted to their “savage” ways (a word the film uses repeatedly), becoming mindless, snarling killing machines who are a menace to public safety. So, um, what the fuck is going on here, Disney? You can’t tell me this is really a story about socioeconomic differences or psychological types when the characters know who has the potential for violence (and who doesn’t) based solely on physical attributes. You can’t tell me this film isn’t really about race just because it also portrays bankers as lemmings, or DMV workers as sloths, or the Corleones from The Godfather as shrews.
Aside from the fact that Zootopia is racist, it’s also a massive disservice to the truth about biodiversity, evolution, and the natural world at large. Species that humans are driving to extinction for sport, meat, and money are depicted in the movie as happy, multicultural city dwellers. Not surprisingly, we never see an animal in this movie eat lunch, presumably because even the lions are vegan and dependent on the carrot crop from the rubes upstate. In the real world, if a lion doesn’t eat meat, it starves to death (unless a dentist shoots it first). In the real world, sloths are one of the coolest mammals around, and they move so slowly because their metabolism runs on tree leaves. In the real world, most humans eat cows, chickens, and/or pigs, which is probably why there aren’t any farm animals shown in this movie. Only zoo animals can live together in harmony, and we’ll pretend they’re like human beings in a city. But would you want to live in a zoo?
Yes it’s a kids’ movie, and it doesn’t have to be scientifically accurate, but no child will learn anything from Zootopia except that urban living is morally superior, the police state is the highest ideal, and even if your neighbors look different from you and they used to be savages, it’s OK because they’ve changed their ways—unless they’re on drugs (spoiler alert!), in which case they go violently insane. Devin Faraci, writing a more in-depth review of the movie’s racial messaging, describes what happens when the predators are drugged: “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.” Super predators, anyone?
But as usual, our hero can fix everything. Judy, despite being so situated in the mainstream, also defies stereotypes in the role of a minority, as the first little bunny on the police force. Her barrier-breaking is really coded feminism, which is fine, but it only detracts from the dilemma of predators living amongst herbivores, and the mixed metaphors lose their meaning. But make no mistake: Judy is the hero of the film, she’s a female hero, and she’s a white hero.
Ultimately, this movie is either saying: different animal species are like different groups of humans, they just need to get along. Or it’s saying different groups of humans are like different animal species, they have intrinsically different biology. Neither of these analogies is true (or acceptable for children). I hope this isn’t news to anyone, but unlike different species with different biochemical needs, people with different racial and ethnic backgrounds are actually all the same.
Yet according to Rotten Tomatoes, “the brilliantly well-rounded Zootopia offers a thoughtful, inclusive message that’s as rich and timely as its sumptuously state-of-the-art animation.”
[Update 11/21/2016: they should have named this film Dystopizoo.]