Before we get into this review, let me do a brief recount of Disney’s history with social progress. We have this picture of Walt Disney, and the Disney corporation as a whole, as very conservative-valued (let’s be clear: I’m talking about Conservatism as a broad political and social philosophy, and not in its America a.k.a. “Republican” version). And with good reason. Movies like Mary Poppins and Cinderella have deeply conservative undertones. For most of its history, the company has tried to play it safe, and has done everything it can to maximize profits by not offending sensibilities. But Disney’s history as a conservative conglomerate may have as much to do with the politics of the man himself as it does with the history of what has happened when Disney has tried to be Progressive.
In 1946, Disney released Song of the South, feature-length movie adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories. The film, which depicts the relationship between a young white boy and an old storytelling ex-slave (Uncle Remus) in the Reconstruction South was meant as a fable about story-telling and acceptance, but while it was a box office success, it was also quite controversial. The NAACP pronounced itself against the film, calling it racist; and though it played U.S. theaters as recently as 1986, the backlash against the film is so big it has never been released in home video, and it’s practically impossible to find a copy these days without ordering from white supremacist website.
Now, I’m not here to discuss the racism in Song of the South (if you want to read a great article about that topic, I recommend this piece by Odie Henderson), but to observe how the backlash to Disney’s early (and misguided) attempts at a Progressive message might have soured him on the idea of making race and other Social Problems a factor in his movies. This adherence to Old-Fashioned values is perhaps part of why Disney’s studio nose-dived in popularity in the seventies and eighties (that, and the death of Walt himself, which undoubtedly played a major factor).
Curiously enough, Disney regained its footing in the nineties, by embracing an old musical aesthetic and marrying to more modern concerns. The studio had its first attempt at a feminist heroine in Beauty and the Beast, and started setting its movies in different cultures. Disney’s big attempt at Progressivism in the nineties came with Pocahontas, a beautiful-looking movie, that misguidedly attempts to turn the arrival of Europeans to the Americans into a love story, casually (but perhaps not intentionally) neglecting the tragic nature of the effects this encounter had on Native American history.
Similarly, the last movie I would describe as a transparent attempt at delving into the Progressive well by Disney would be The Princess and the Frog, another beautiful-looking whose problematic elements made headlines even before it was released. People protested when they found out Disney’s first-ever African American Princess was actually going to be a maid, and so Tiana was changed into a working class waitress with a dream of opening a restaurant of her own. Even in its finished version, The Princess and the Frog elicited complaints that the titular Princess wasn’t really a princess, and that she spent most of the movie’s running-time as a frog. Both problems of depiction when you are talking about the first and basically only black protagonist in a Disney Animation’s history.
This is all to say that Disney just can’t get it right. And even though they have themselves to blame, I also wouldn’t begrudge them if they didn’t want to attempt any other Progressive idea in the future. After all, it only seems to bring them trouble.
Now, let us talk about Zootopia. Because for all intents and purposes, this is Disney’s most effective and transparent (in a way) attempt at tackling the issue of Race Relations in America. And even then, the message has problems of its own.
The issue of transparency is interesting, because not only did Disney decide to take humans out of the equation altogether and make this a race parable told through funny talking animals, but because the lack of human characters afforded them the luxury to not have to advertise the fact that this was a movie about race. Disney’s sneaky strategy of not revealing their movie’s themes has payed off recently. Don’t you remember how the marketing materials for Frozen -Disney’s biggest hit ever- didn’t let anyone know this was a movie about sisterhood until they actually saw the film?
Anyway, Zootopia takes place in a fantasy world populated by talking animals. Our protagonist is a bunny by the name of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin). Ever since she was a child, Judy wanted to be a police officer in the big city of Zootopia, and thanks to the “Mammals Inclusion Program” (this world’s version of Affirmative Action), she gets to be the first ever bunny cop in the force. But Judy is undermined by her colleagues for being a girl and a rabbit. The plot kicks into gear when Judy decides to prove her worth, and takes on a case that ends up unraveling a major conspiracy that involves fourteen missing animals.
The interesting thing about the conspiracy is that all the missing animals are predators. You see, in the world of Zootopia, there is a clear distinction between Predators and Prey, and this is where the race allegory comes into play. Predators represent only 10% of this world’s population, and Prey have a long list of preconceptions about what kind of people Predators are. After all, there used to be a time -millennia ago- when Predators would hunt and eat Prey. As a young bunny, Judy had a violent encounter with a bully Fox. “It’s the kind of behavior you’d expect from a Fox” say her Parents. “He only happened to be a Fox” says Judy. Midway through her adventure, Judy teams up with sly trickster Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who also happens to be a Fox. Because this is a kids’ movie I don’t need to tell you that Judy and Nick learn to accept and respect each other by the end of the movie. And thus, we practically come full circle from the days of Song of the South, when Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox were enemies to a movie were rabbit and fox live together in harmony.
But let’s look deeper into Zootopia’s allegory. There’s a lot to unpack here. The first thing that jumped at me is the movie’s decision to make Predators the minority species and Prey the hegemony (relatively speaking). If you wanted to create a reflection of America’s own history with race relations, I think it would be more appropriate for the Prey to be the historically minoritized group, and Predators into the oppressors who must struggle with their ancestor’s behavior and history.
The way in which Zootopia uses Predators to represent the minoritized group is interesting in that the Prey citizens of Zootopia have a deep fear of the Predators “going savage”, by which they mean them reverting to their ancestral stage, back when they would’ve violently hunted 90% of the population. This idea taps quite effectively into white America’s fears of what would happen when minorities are empowered, but it also uses the very loaded term “savage”, and doesn’t come unscathed. The sometimes brash, but always insightful film critic Devin Faraci wrote about this particular problem in his review of Zootopia, and explains why the idea of making Predators the metaphorical equivalent for black people is fundamentally flawed. Here’s a particularly good quote:
“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.”
This contradiction in Zootopia‘s analogy stuck in the back of my mind for most of the movie. Although I have to say that the movie very deliberately introduces a third-act reveal that makes clear what the filmmakers were going for with the whole “going savage” bit, and how it plays into their message about tolerance and acceptance. Without going into spoilers and such, let’s just say that they make it clear that the citizen of Zootopia’s worry that Predators will “go savage” is misguided. That being said, and going back to Faraci’s point, there is a historical reason within the movie why one could consider that Predators devolving into their primal nature could be a legitimate problem.
That’s why I think the movie might have worked better if the roles were flipped. When we compare the movie to our own world -and please don’t be all “why do you have to bring real-life politics and history into a movie about talking animals”, because the movie very clearly wants to engage in such a conversation through its themes- we see that the history of white people in America (as slave-owners, and accomplices of a racist society) fits better with the Predators’ history. On the other hand, the filmmakers have a clear interest in representing white people’s fears and perceptions of blacks and other minorities as “dangerous”, and I don’t know how that would work if the metaphor was flipped. But now we’re getting into speculation of what the movie should and should’ve done and we’ve stopped talking about the movie itself.
And there’s a reason for that. The weird thing about Zootopia is that its central racial metaphor, despite its fundamental problems, is the movie’s biggest strength and most commendable aspect. A late second act development, for example, depicts a moment of mass hysteria and exploitation of racial (or inter-species) tension by the media. The animals of Zootopia give over to a kind of mob-mentality that until Donal Trump’s recent rise to political success could have only been expected from the citizens of Springfield. There is a certain boldness in what this movie for kids released by Disney wants to tackle that is nothing but commendable.
The sad part of this situation is that outside of the metaphor, Zootopia is merely an ok movie. It’s got a solid mystery at its center, and a bunch of funny jokes, but that’s it. A couple years ago, Tangled and Frozen promised a new Golden Age for Disney Animation, but the studio -as it usually does when it finds success- seems to have settled into a predictable formula. It took them a long time, but Disney has settled into the business of Computer-Generated Animation, and has found refuge by focusing on plot and ideas and neglecting visuals.
This might seem contradictory coming from a person who is constantly demanding that movies actually be about something, but cinema -and animation more than any other medium- is built around the grammar of images. The cliché about animation is that it allows you to do anything, and the people over at Disney -who has historically led the charge in technology and innovation as far as animation style is concerned- seem to have lost interest in telling stories through images.
There isn’t a single visual moment or sequence in Zootopia that sticks with me as a feat of animation. If your knee-jerk reaction is to disagree with me, I urge you to think back and tell me what are the most memorable moments from Disney’s recent animated movies. For me, it’s the lanterns rising from the sea in Tangled, and Hiro trying to sneak Baymax around his house in Big Hero 6. These moments carry their power not in words, but in images. So does the moment when Maleficent turns into a dragon in Sleeping Beauty, when Belle and Beast share their first dance in Beauty and the Beast, and when Simba grows up walking on a log alongside Timon and Pumba in The Lion King. These are all movies that find power in their craft. They use animation not as an excuse, but as a means to tell their story.
Grade: 6 out of 10