Disney has typically been at the forefront with animated films that don’t play down to children, that respect their intelligence and sense of wonder and imagination. But in the case of Zootopia, Disney has overstepped its bounds, telling a story and touching on themes I don’t believe its target audience is ready for. If that comes off as condescending, ask yourself the following questions. How many children are likely to pick up on the fact that the film is essentially no different from the procedural cop dramas on TV? Despite the fact that past animated films have addressed racism, most notably Disney’s own The Fox and the Hound, can children really process the ways in which Zootopia reveals its historical complexities?
Furthermore, how many children are realistically familiar with films like The Godfather, or very real places like nudist camps, mental institutions, and drug laboratories? Zootopia touches on all these at one point or another. So too does it touch on crimes such as bootlegging, unlicensed food vending, speeding, parking violations, tax evasion, and robbery. Eventually, it even gets into government corruption and discrimination in police departments. You obviously know your children much better than I do, but for the life of me, I can’t imagine a great many of them responding to or even understanding any of this.
Like many Disney movies, real life has been replaced with anthropomorphized animals, all of which are admittedly cutely rendered, brightly colored, and will literally pop out if you decide to see the film in 3D, especially IMAX 3D. In this world, racism is defined as the division between predator and prey animals, mammals specifically. That already undermines the point the film is trying to make about racial discrimination and stereotyping. I mean, why didn’t the filmmakers include birds, fish, reptiles, or amphibians? Are they somehow inferior? Be that as it may, a bunny, appropriately named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), grew up believing in the sanitized social messages of predator and prey evolving out of their baser instincts and now living in peace and harmony.
But she’s just a bunny from a small farming community, and she was surrounded by family and friends that tended their crops and didn’t make waves. Upon her moving to the city of Zootopia, a metropolis in which very different climate regions are impossibly placed next to each other, she finds that life is much more complicated. It begins with the fact that, as the first ever bunny cop in the city’s history, she’s surrounded by animals that simply don’t believe she’s up to the job. It only gets worse when she gets wind of a case in which a group of predators have gone missing; the only one who can help her is a streetwise con artist named Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman), a fox who is indeed very sly. For reasons I won’t reveal, he’s also quite cynical.
The more leads Judy and Nick follow, the more obvious is becomes that it’s about more than a few missing animals. I won’t spoil the plot and say what it really is about. I will say that each discovery points to racist beliefs and attitudes, which, even with the progress that has been made in the world, still runs deep and is far more complex than anyone, Judy included, ever thought. While I agree that teaching children to be fair, moral, and unmindful of racial differences is in and of itself a good idea, I don’t believe the makers of this film are going about it the right way. When you have to resort to a mafioso threatening to kill you on the day of his daughter’s wedding, you clearly don’t know what is and isn’t appropriate for younger audiences.
I will admit to one joke that I found quite funny, namely the fact that the city’s DMV is run by sloths, well known to be among the earth’s slowest mammals. They factor into a scene in which Judy, whose prejudiced and doubtful chief (voiced by Idris Elba) has allotted a mere forty-eight hours to crack the case, has to rely on an alternative method to run a license plate number; what should have been a simple and straightforward procedure is intentionally dragged out by an uncooperative Nick when he tells one of the sloths a joke. But of course, that’s just one scene. When it comes to all other scenes, Zootopia overreaches. If only the filmmakers had a better understanding of what they think younger audiences need to see.