At this point I think it's fair to admit that I have pretty low expectations for your average animated kids' movie. After about two years of covering children's media and analyzing its potential impact on actual children, I have to confess that I tend to dismiss big commercial animated films as probably garbage. Garbage unless proven otherwise. Time has made me cynical, for all that I try to keep my hopes up. So it was with some level of trepidation that I listened to all of the rave reviews coming out about Zootopia. It wasn't until my best friend told me it was amazing and I had to see it that I was finally able to shuck my skepticism and go see the freaking movie. I am very glad I did.
Because Zootopia? Is phenomenal. It's exactly the kind of movie I have so desperately wanted to see, the kind of big-budget, professionally done, fantastically written and directed and acted children's movie that I have been clamoring for in this column. So I would like to take a moment and apologize to all of you, chickadees, for resisting the goodness that is this film. Clearly I need to have a more open mind. I'm sorry.
Not only is Zootopia a really good film, it's also a film that does what I've wanted movies to do for ages: it addresses real social issues in a way that's accessible for children, without sacrificing tone or story. It's not a preachy movie, nor is it a film that detours out of its way to make some social point. Instead, it's a movie that is explicitly about the issues with institutional racism, and it's completely kid-friendly, palatable, and perfectly executed.
And it's a Disney movie. I'm still getting over it.
So for those of you not sure if you would enjoy watching Zootopia or not, let me stop you right there. You will almost certainly like it. Seriously. It's funny and sweet and sensitive and a good rolicking mystery story. It's pretty much everything you could ask for or expect in a piece of cinema, and it has enough complexity that it officially qualifies as a "movie for everyone". You should definitely go see this movie.
And you should probably stop reading here too. Because this article is going to be rife with SPOILERS, and I want you to get the full experience before diving into the analysis.
Okay. We all good now? Everyone caught up and on board? Then let's talk about the brilliant way that Zootopia tackles institutional racism and how this can give us a roadmap to how other films can address big difficult issues in a way that children understand. Like how Maleficent gave children a vocabulary for talking about sexual assault in a PG way and how Inside Out gave children a way to discuss mental health without overcomplicating it. That. Zootopia does that, but with racism.
Obviously the plot of the movie is explicitly about racism. But if you dig the slightest bit further, the movie really works as a criticism of white feminism and a demand for intersectional representation. Here's how that works:
Our hero, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is our audience stand-in, but also clearly meant to be an analogy about your average white feminist. She's a determined young rabbit who wants to be a police officer even though no rabbit has ever been made a police officer before. And sure she's small and cute and not physically strong, but she's perfectly capable of figuring out work-arounds that get her through police academy and placed in Zootopia's central police department. Yay!
This plot so clearly mimics the struggles of women who want to enter traditionally male fields - when Judy finally gets to her dream job, she finds that they don't even want her and don't believe in her, just like so many women who finally got to be police officers and firefighters and soldiers, only to have to keep fighting the institutional sexism in those places. Zootopia is right off the bat making it clear that this is a movie about overcoming the odds, that "anyone can be anything", and for Judy at least, that's completely true.
What makes the movie fantastic, though, is how it then takes that premise and takes it apart. Yes, Judy has managed to achieve her dream through determination and hard work. She's become a rabbit in a big animal's world. Good for her! But because she's reached her goals, she assumes that anyone can reach theirs, and she figures that anyone who then doesn't achieve their goals or who fails to live up to their potential must not be trying hard enough.
That's why her interaction with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) is so important. When she meets Nick, Judy first assumes the worst, then kicks herself. She's not a racist person, even if her parents made sure she kept some "fox spray" to bring with her to work. She believes that any animal can be anything, right? Her aggressive kindness to Nick, then, comes off as completely condescending.
She's being nice as hard as she can, but she's still a privileged member of the majority looking down on the failures of a minority man. And when she realizes that all the "respectability" she liked about Nick was an act, Judy is furious, angry that he "lied" to her. She feels betrayed, even though Nick really didn't even do anything that bad. He sold off-brand popsicles, that's all. So why does this make Judy so angry?
Because Judy likes the narrative in her head where she helped a nice respectable predator. It makes her feel good about herself and open-minded and liberal, but she's furious to realize she was taken advantage of. In this anger, her actual opinions of foxes come out, and they're not complimentary.
So if you take the metaphor as given (and I think it's pretty dang intentional), this is like a white feminist trying to be an ally to a man of color and being pissed as hell when he turns out to not appreciate her condescending help. Ugh. This movie knows how to hit where it hurts.
The film then bounces between Judy and Nick's struggles, looking at how Judy desperately wants the police force to take her seriously and stop seeing her as a token diversity hire while Nick keeps hustling to make his way in the world, dealing with a Zootopia that doesn't want to see him as anything other than a shifty fox - certainly not as a potential employee or trustworthy friend.
And while a little of the story in the film deals with Nick coming to appreciate and accept Judy, the majority of plot time is actually about Judy swallowing her gut reactions and actually listening to Nick as he explains the world he experiences. It's not until Judy finally lets Nick tell her his story that she is able to be a true ally - and she still screws it up sometimes.
It's so funny, because this feels like an inherently adult problem. I mean, what kind of kid is sitting around wondering if their feminism is intersectional enough?* Why do we need a children's film to examine these issues if they're really more suited to adult situations and decisions?
Well, because kids are people too and these aren't adult problems, they're human problems. See, one of the biggest points in the film is that both Judy and Nick have had their perspectives on the world shaped by formative childhood experiences. Judy remembers being humiliated and hurt by a fox, which instilled in her a dislike for predators and a belief that they're all just bullies who want to hurt the nice prey species. Nick's memory of being beat up by his scout troop because he wasn't "trustworthy" enough to be one of them, that he wasn't good enough, clearly has shaped how his life turned out. Both of their experiences were valid and unpleasant - but that doesn't mean that the results are okay. Kids can understand that.
Seriously, this movie is a master class in how to explain these complex issues in a way children will understand. When Judy finally falls into old stereotypes about how predators have a natural instinct to be feral and go savage, even the littlest children will be able to feel how betrayed Nick is - and that empathic response will easily translate into "don't say mean things about big groups of people because it will hurt their feelings."
That might not sound like much, but it's the beginning of an assumption of empathy and friendship that can set the tone for a child to be more receptive to friends outside their culture, race, or linguistic group.
Even the little ways this movie manages to dig in on race are so freaking on point. The scene where Clawhauser has to move away from the reception desk because he's deemed to threatening is heartbreaking. The revelation that physical size means nothing in the face of anti-predator sentiment - as with people being afraid of the Otterton family - is hard to take. And the moment when Judy finally sees how her actions have hurt Zootopia is fantastically written.
So, yes. This is a movie about white feminism and the need for intersectionality. I mean, yes, it's also a movie about racism, but it's a movie about how even the most well-intentioned people who believe they're overcoming the greatest obstacles of discrimination in their world can completely miss how their privilege gives them a leg up.
The movie even doubles down by establishing that for all that Judy is a rabbit and not very respected, she's also from a solidly middle class family, while Nick's background is implicitly working class. He barely scrapes by, while she can always have a home and a job to go back to if things don't work out. It's a solid reminder that you cannot make assumptions about someone's background, because you just plain don't know.
As far as the worldbuilding of the film goes, I am genuinely quite impressed. This is a movie that thought through all of the aspects of its premise, from where the animals would all live to how a chipmunk and a giraffe could ride the same train to work. It's complex and beautiful and really well realized. The characters all look like real animals while still being expressive enough to read as emotive to a human audience, and it doesn't fall into the Blacksad trap of making the female animals look distressingly human.
Actually, I have to admit that one of my first thoughts when I came out of the theater was how this was the story that Blacksad was trying to be. Blacksad, as you may recall, is a French comic about a world of semi-anthropomorphic animals, and it's a noir mystery where the hero has to fight racism and badness and solve mysteries and stuff. One of the major plots in the comic deals with our hero, a black cat, fighting against a white supremacist group of animals. Well, Zootopia does racism in a way that is much more nuanced and understandable than what appears in Blacksad.
The predator vs. prey distinction gives us a world where there is systemic racism and injustice, but where it's "acceptable" - sort of like how white Americans are conditioned not to care about violence in the predominantly non-white inner cities because "it's part of the inner city culture." Zootopia sees that attitude, rebrands it as "predators are just more inherently savage" and then rips it the hell to shreds. It's great.
Look, I know that billing a movie as a children's flick where the characters are discussing the implications of white feminism and intersectionality isn't the most appealing thing in the world. But please know that this is a fantastic conversation to have, and a timely one too.
We all like to think of ourselves as good people, as the kind of people who are definitely not racist and who have liberal values and who never judge someone based on their appearance. We pretend we live in a world where "anyone can be anything." But that simply isn't true. No matter how hard you try to unpack your privilege and deprogram your internal racism and misogyny, there's always more work to be done. Not to say that you should give up and let the blackness swallow you, but to point out that this movie gets it right. Judy Hopps is a good person and a good cop, and she still screws the hell up.
If we really want to live in a world where anyone can be anything, then we can't pretend that systemic discrimination doesn't exist. We must instead admit that it does and attempt to dismantle it. We can only make the world a better place by understanding it as it truly is, even if that means admitting when we're the ones screwing it up. It's painful and uncomfortable and so so necessary.
Zootopia could have been a movie about a rabbit who hates foxes explicitly and has to learn not to be a racist, but it's much more powerful to make a movie about a rabbit who thinks she's already liberal coming to realize how much internalized crap she really has. And the movie then pivots to look at how the institutional and cultural biases against predators impact both predators and prey. Negative stereotypes force you into a hole then tell you that there's no point pretending you didn't deserve to be in that hole in the first place. Thank you Zootopia for pointing that out.
Ultimately, the message of this movie seems to simply be, "Try." And while it's a very catchy song, it's also a fantastic concept. Try. The world is an unpleasant, screwed up place where the best intentions can still devastate entire communities. Try to make it better. The world might not actually be capable of being better. Try anyway.
This is a movie that manages to capture the complexity of a fully formed analysis of race and gender in modern power structures, and that can still make kids walk out singing a super catchy song. If that's not solid filmmaking, I don't know what is.