Disney's Zootopia is no utopia, but it has some good messages.
Zootopia, which came out recently on DVD, is Disney's latest animation extravaganza. It follows Judy Hopps, whose dream is to become the first rabbit police officer in Zootopia, a metropolis where predator and prey peacefully coexist.
The importance of following your dreams is one of the main themes in Zootopia. It's right there in the chorus of the ear-worm-y title song:
I won't give up, no I won't give in
Till I reach the end
And then I'll start again.
No I won't leave.
I wanna try everything.
I wanna try even though I could fail.
It's a great message. I only wish that it wasn't hammered home by a solid hour of everyone in the freaking movie trying to crush that poor bunny's dreams.
There was a point about a third of the way through where I turned to my kids (who had seen the movie before) and asked incredulously, "Is everyone in this movie mean?"
Judy's parents urge her to settle for being a carrot farmer. "It’s great to have dreams, just so long as you don’t believe in them too much."
Her boss resents her presence on the police force, a by-product of the Mammal Inclusion Initiative. "Life isn't some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true. So let it go."
The movie's other main character, Nick Wilde, delivers a cruel lecture predicting her failure. "Everyone comes to Zootopia, thinking they could be anything they want. But you can't. You can only be what you are. Sly fox. Dumb bunny."
And that's just the main characters. In-between is a never-ending stream of extras telling her she's just a stupid "meter maid" who'll never amount to anything. One of them even goes so far as to say: "My mommy says she wishes you were dead."
To her credit, Judy weathers all of this abuse with her head high, determined to prove them wrong and live out her dreams. That's awesome. But geez, Disney, take it down a notch!
And then there's the other half of the movie, a thinly-veiled allegory to (depending on who you ask) ethnic or racial discrimination.
A small number of predators (the minority in this society) have gone "savage", causing a tide of fear and panic. "Go back to the rainforest!" protesters shout, while bunnies scoot their little ones away from predators on the subway.
It's a heart-breaking mirror of the world we live in. The movie tries its darndest to shine a light on just how cruel and stupid it all is, and even throws in a cautionary tale about how even the most well-meaning person, like Judy, can get caught up in the hysteria.
But somewhere along the way, the message gets a little...muddled.
Judy has been brought up to fear foxes. The movie wants us to come away with the idea that prejudice is wrong and sterotypes are bad. But there's a key scene early in the movie where Judy is suspicious of a fox (Nick) who's acting shady. When she sees him being discriminated against while trying to buy his "kid" a popsicle, she feels bad for misjudging him and stands up for him. Yay!
But just a few minutes later, we discover that he and the "kid" are both con-artists that just hustled her. Uhhhh.... soooo.... what's the message here, Disney? That sometimes ethnic/racial profiling is accurate?!?!!? WTF!
At another point, Judy raises the possibility that the predators are going savage because of their biology. That they are simply reverting to some primal force nestled in their DNA.
Here, too, the movie wants us to believe that she's wrongly giving into the paranoia, but... isn't she kind of right? I mean, predators were hard-wired to hunt prey. It does not seem at all unreasonable for a bunny to be afraid of a lion. So again the allegory breaks down, and lending even the slightest bit of credence to "logic" like this in justifying prejudice feels misguided at best, and jaw-droppingly irresponsible at worst.
Finally, for a movie that's all about "stereotypes are bad", it sure spends a lot of time painting people with that brush. There's the Italian Godfather Rat, the ignorant farmer with a hick accent, the donut-eating cop... I could go on, but you get the idea.
Points for Effort
The actual plot in Zootopia was a remarkably well-done mystery with several distinct 'acts'. There are some laugh-out-loud funny bits sprinkled throughout, and the buddy-cop vibe between Nick and Judy is fun to watch.
It's more intense than the average Disney movie - possibly too much so for young viewers. The opening scene features Judy squirting ketchup blood and spewing red ribbons from her belly in a fake death scene. There are numerous references to death, a picture of an animal being wheeled off to the ambulance in "critical condition" after a mauling, and a scary chase scene that had my kids covering their eyes.
Despite the message being wobbly in a few places, I think the movie overall did a good job of getting the main point across. At various points, my son would shout "That's NOT nice!" at the screen in righteous indignation. So maybe it wasn't perfect, but their heart was in the right place.
- Princess Power:
- Bechdel Test: Fail (There were some nice interactions between Judy and the other female supporting characters, though.)
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