How clever is Zootopia, Disney’s 55th animated feature, and how subversive. Just when I was thinking it was a pleasant and amusing film about not giving up on your dreams, yada yada yada, the last act springs out a much more timely and important message. Zootopia, it turns out, is a parable against racism, most specifically Islamophobia.
The premise is that mammals have created a world and gotten past that icky predator-prey thing (we don’t see what predators now eat, presumably it’s fish and birds) and live in harmony. Well, almost. Though the city in question is called Zootopia, based on the word coined by Sir Thomas More to describe an ideal society, there is tension between the predators and prey, or as Woody Allen put it, “The lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.”
Our heroine is Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), who grows up on a farm dreaming of becoming a police officer in the big city. That there has never been a bunny cop doesn’t bother her, and she perseveres and graduate number one in her class. But the chief, a water buffalo (Idris Elba) puts her on parking detail. But she gets a chance to find a missing otter, and presses a fox (Jason Bateman), who is normally a confidence man, into helping her.
Okay, all well and good. The direction by Byron Howard and Rich Moore is colorful and vibrant. There are some great gags, a lot of which come from the notion that the animals are not all the same size, as they are in most anthropomorphic films. So when the characters go into “Little Rodentia,” even a rabbit towers over them like Godzilla. Many have seen the gag in the DMV, where all the workers are sloths, and the old Bob and Ray “Slow Talkers of America” routine is rolled out. Adults will get a kick out of a Godfather parody with a shrew as the capo di tutti capo, Iat one point he utters the great line, “Ice the weasel”) and there’s even some meta humor, as when Elba tells Goodwin that “this is not a cartoon musical…let it go.”
But there’s an undercurrent of tension. Early in the film a character tells Goodwin she is cute. She is offended. “A bunny can tell another bunny she’s cute,” she tells the offender, “but no one else can.” This sounds like some of the epithets in our society. Also, when Goodwin’s parents send her off to the big city, they warn her about foxes, and she carries fox repellent just in case.
In the last act the other shoe drops. It turns out predators have been kidnapped and made to regress to their “savage” ways, that is, hungering for prey. The villain behind all this says, “Fear always works!”and that it is all “biology,” and in “their DNA.” This is the kind of code we hear about certain races, and fuels our fear and bigotry. Even Goodwin, as good-hearted as she is, fundamentally believes this, which is why even liberal white people can cross the street at night when a black person comes walking down their side.
I find that Zootopia being released during this presidential race either providential or a sign that this is nothing new, because this film basically tells Trump, Cruz, and all the other Islamophobes to stuff it. That is also tells it in a bright, entertaining animated film is just a stroke of genius.
Not only is Zootopia a great film for kids, but it’s also instructive without being pedantic. Well done, Disney, and the entire team.