A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
films aimed at kids don’t have to have political messages, but when they do, they
should either be internally consistent, or work through the contradictions in
terms that kids can apply to the real world. “Zootopia,” a fantasy set in a city
where predators and prey live together in harmony, is a funny, beautifully
designed kids’ film with a message that it restates at every turn. But if you
think about that message for longer than five minutes, it doesn’t merely fall
apart, it invites a reading that is almost surely contrary to the movie’s
seemingly enlightened spirit: discrimination is wrong, but stereotypes are
stereotypes for a reason, and it’s not easy for members of a despised class to
overcome the reasons why the majority despises them, so you gotta be patient.
Ginnifer Goodwin (“Big Love”) voices Bunny Hops, a small town rabbit who’s told that she can’t be a police officer in Zootopia because there’s never been a rabbit police officer. (The job tends to be done by predators and large herbivores—like a water buffalo that’s become a police captain, voiced by Idris Elba.) Hops makes it through police training anyway and gets assigned to meter maid duty, to the relief of her carrot farmer parents (Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake), who gave her fox repellent as a going-away present. They had good reason to give her fox repellent: the fox is one of the rabbit’s mortal enemies, and when Judy was child, a fox cornered her at a county fair, insulted her for being a bunny, and slashed her face with his paw. (This is a slightly more intense kid-flick than you might expect, given how many adorable animals are in it.)
course Hops ends up partnered with a red fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a
small-time hustler who reluctantly helps her investigate the
disappearances of a dozen predators. I won’t reveal exactly what the mystery is
here (it’s a pretty good one) except to say that it invites kids and parents to
talk about nature versus nurture, and the origins and debilitating effect of
But this turns out to be not such a great thing once you get deeper into the movie. Because people are not animals, I dread thinking about the “logical” conclusions to which such conversations will lead. The film isn’t wrong to say that carnivores are biologically inclined to want to eat herbivores, that bunnies reproduce prolifically, the sloths are slow-moving (they work at the DMV here), that you can take the fox out of the forest but you can’t take forest out of the fox, and so on. If you think about all this as an analogy for the world we live in (particularly if we live in a melting-pot big city like Zootopia) and and then ask yourself which racial or ethnic or societal groups (cops, businesspeople, city bureaucrats) are “predators” and which are “prey” (for purposes of metaphor translation), you see the problem. "Zootopia" pretty much rubber-stamps whatever worldview parents want to pass on to their kids, however embracing or malignant that may be. I can imagine an anti-racist and a racist coming out of this film, each thinking it validated their sense of how the world works.