Growing up watching children’s television in the early ‘90s, it was practically impossible to get through a week without being treated to a parable – or if you were unlucky, a lecture – about prejudice and xenophobia. Cartoons would obliquely or explicitly address issues of racism, religion and even AIDS in the context of a half-hour long episode, and invariably their morals boiled down to the same, simple message: be nice to one another.
For a middle-class white kid growing up in a multicultural school, it was an easy message to absorb. My friends at the time hailed from Singapore, India, Vietnam, Taiwan, America and a host of other locations. Treating people equally regardless of their cultural heritage seemed easy – because, of course, it was. The realities of institutional racism where erased by my circumstances – attending a cushy private school where race was secondary to your parents’ property portfolio, obscuring the disadvantages faced by those not lucky enough to have parents who were either rich or, in my case, worked at said private school – and similarly ignored by the cartoons I’d watch of an afternoon.
Zootopia, Disney’s latest animated adventure, offers similar platitudes early on. Rural rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) wants to join the police force from a young age, and despite the judgements of her parents and peers – who are astounded at the very idea of a ‘bunny cop’ – she steels herself through a tough run at police academy and becomes a full-fledged officer. The image of Judy doing hanging sit ups in front of an open textbook is the epitome of the sort of ideas that resonated through the children’s entertainment of my youth. Stereotypes exist in this world – rabbits are ‘cute’ carrot farmers, foxes are ‘sneaky’ and not to be trusted – but try hard enough and you can overcome the odds. It’s optimistic … if an order of magnitude more simplistic than how things operate in the real world.
Thankfully, Zootopia’s creators – a list of names too long to include here, including two directors, a co-director, and seven screenwriters – soon update their anti-racist rhetoric for the 21st century. Zootopia – a sprawling metropolis divided into a host of different settings (snow, desert, rainforest, etc) and populated by countless different species of animals – isn’t quite the haven of tolerance and acceptance Judy expected.
Dwarfed by her more sizable colleagues (rhinos, hippos, elephants and the like), Judy is restricted to parking ticket duty. Her forays into ‘real’ policework – defending a fox (Jason Bateman) and his infant son from discrimination, chasing down a weasel thief (Alan Tudyk) – don’t warrant the acclaim you (and she) might expect. Her police chief (Idris Elba, phoning it in for once) is unimpressed by her preventing the theft of “mouldy onions” while the fox turns out to be a popsicle hustler by the name of Nick Wilde, who comprehensively shuts down the young cop’s optimistic view of the big city. Just “trying hard” isn’t enough when the opportunities are so inequitably distributed (and reinforced by those aforementioned stereotypes).
Not that Zootopia gets too preachy with this. For the kiddies in the audience who might not be overly receptive to ruminations on racism, directors Bryan Howard and Rich Moore offer up a colourful, richly-detailed world, kinetic chase scenes and splashes of humour. There’s plenty to satisfy their parents, too; almost every frame is filled with sight gags or background puns. The former are superior to the latter; the puns are of the ‘popular brand except for animals’ variety, but a memorable chase through “Rodentia” sees two characters temporarily re-enacting a round of King of the Monsters.
Meanwhile the movie’s comic centrepiece – sloths as DMV workers – earned more guffaws from the adults at my preview screening than the children. There’s the occasional pop culture reference, too – Breaking Bad, The Godfather, Speed – but they’re light enough on the ground to keep this from feeling like a Shrek sequel.
There’s also a briskly-paced mystery plot to keep you entertained. A dozen or so animals have disappeared from the city, and through a couple of narrative contortions, Judy and Nick end up embroiled in the case while looking for the location of a vanished otter. The mystery is well-conceived and executed with the just the right amount of procedural detail, but as its specifics unfolded my mind drifted back to the whole racism (or homophobia or xenophobia or however you want to read it) subtext.
Using animal species as an allegory for race seems clever. When Judy bristles at being called “cute” (only rabbits are allowed to call one another cute) or Nick is pigeonholed as untrustworthy, it serves as an easily understandable analogy for how racism often operates in our society. At a surface level, at least. As mentioned, Zootopia – to its credit – delves a bit below that surface, showing how systems and protocols in society are set up to reinforce those stereotypes. But it’s an imperfect analogy because a fox is a predator and a rabbit isn’t; there’s a biological component involved that isn’t relevant to race (unless you’re some unhinged racial biologist, but we’ll disregard such quacks here).
As this realisation dawned on me, I began to feel less charitable towards Zootopia’s more-evolved take on the ‘90s parables I grew up with. But thankfully, the screenwriters – all seven of ‘em – recognised this failing in the film’s third act, in which the biological component of their world is explicitly challenged and, ultimately, identified as problematic within the diegesis. Neat, huh? It’s certainly reflects a real attempt to consider the issues in a way that escapes films that aren’t, you know, Disney animated movies. “In Zootopia, anyone can do anything,” is rejected for something appreciably messier.
Unfortunately, while the film’s third act manages to strengthen its thesis, it also detracts from its coherency while crippling its pacing. Zootopia has a natural end point somewhere the 80 minute mark. Ending here might’ve been meant a less nuanced take on racism and the like, but it also would’ve made for a cleaner, more coherent picture on the whole. There’s this awkward, Casino Royale-esque lull for five or so minutes before the plotting picks back up; an understandable lapse, but one that tested the patience of the kids in my screening (there were more than a few families making an exit around this point).
This is also the point in the film where, I’d guess, too many cooks have spoiled the broth. While balancing the biological aspects of its subtext, Zootopia’s screenplay tosses in a Donald Trump analogue – a leader driven by pandering and xenophobic fearmongering – that’s admirable in theory but clumsy in practice. Even if you ignore the allegorical aspects altogether, there’s some ropey plotting going on – I got whiplash from Judy’s swift exit from the police force, only to see her back on the case moments later (thanks to an absurdly convenient clue). These problems don’t wreck the film or anything, but you get the sense that potential greatness has been obscured by committee decision-making.
That said, this nitpicking shouldn’t dissuade you from checking out a film that features gorgeous animation, brilliant set design and a nuanced consideration of racism. Probably better suited to the parents than the kids, though.