“Zootopia” Is Unethical—But Funny!

I think you should see “Zootopia,” and maybe even let your children see it, provided that you are prepared to spend about two hours deprogramming them afterwards. Thus you may not want to read further unless you want to encounter numerous spoilers.

Children’s stories, TV shows and movies have long been the vehicle for moral and ethical messages, as well as allegories that may or may not worm themselves into unsuspecting juvenile psyches. Because there are young minds involved, engaging in what can be value-warping and indoctrination if not handled with proper humility and care is a high calling, and for the most part, Disney has always been up to the task.

I like Disney animated movies, and always have. I even like some of the flops, like “Treasure Planet.” Pixar, which is now part of the Disney creative empire, has been even more daring and aggressive in ethics story-telling, and has not seriously abused the privilege. Other studios, like DreamWorks, have been more heavy-handed in their moralizing. No animated film in memory, however, has set out to pound specific political and social points of view into the brains of kids as blatantly, relentlessly and ambitiously as “Zootopia.”

I should add “incompetently.” Like all fantasies with delusions of social significance, “Zootopia” relies on metaphors, and in this film, they become a tangle of confused and sometimes contradictory and hypocritical messages. Wrapped as they are in an often charming, funny, well-acted and well-plotted piece of technically expert art, these muddled messages approach being sinister. That the film has been almost universally praised—it has an amazing 98% positive rating on the review site “Rotten Tomatoes”—speaks either to a culture-wide conspiracy to turn the next generation into political correctness zombies, or to the mass incompetence of the film reviewing profession.

The worst moment in “Zootopia” occurs when Judy Hopps, the heroic bunny who is determined to be a police officer, is thrust into a press conference to explain why it is that some predators in the city, a peaceful, evolved utopia where lions and lambs (as well as other former meat-eaters and their prey) work and play together in peace and harmony, having evolved out of those vicious old stereotypes, are suddenly turning savage, reverting to quadruped locomotion, losing the power of speech, and engaging in violence against other Zootopia residents. She stutters that since only predators have exhibited these symptoms, it may be that they are vulnerable to an epidemic because of their nature, as coded in their DNA. We have to observe the predators among us and be vigilant, she says.

This was wrong, the movie tells us, and eventually Judy is forced to apologize for her suggestion that animals that once were vicious predators might have the the predilection to revert to old programming. In the name  of  diversity and open-mindedness, Judy should have denied any connection, though it was scientifically and factually accurate to do so. Later, she apologizes to her offended predator friend, a fox, saying she had been  wrong and “ignorant” for acknowledging the fact that all the subjects who had gone savage were predators, that predators had a genetic history of attacking and eating prey, and that there might be a link between the genetic predisposition and the conduct. She was in the wrong because stating a harsh fact hurt his  feelings.

To me, this seemed to be a clear, intentional and direct reference to the radical Islam controversy, and an endorsement of the “See No Evil” approach of progressives and the Obama administration. The savage predators are the Muslim terrorists who have been infected with some mad violent urges, and blaming the “DNA” of the Zootopia predators is like the current taboo of blaming the Islamic faith’s violent aspects that good, peaceful Muslims no longer follow.

After Judy’s “gaffe,’ the film shows Zootopian society being split by fear. We see a  family of bunnies eye fearfully a tiger (in a business suit) on a subway. Judy has unleashed fear and bigotry–by stating the facts.

Mustn’t do that.

Maybe the predators aren’t supposed to represent Muslims, at least, not all the time. We learn that they are only 10% of the population. We see casual bigotry against them: Judy, the protagonist, even tells the fox that he has many unexpected virtues, such as being “articulate.” This was the most ham-handed metaphor alert in the whole movie: when, in the history of Disney animation, has any fox been inarticulate? Ah, but the predators are the African-Americans, you see…at least when they aren’t Muslims…or gays. In another scene, a bigoted  thug of an elephant running an ice cream store refuses to serve a fox family, citing his right to refuse service to anyone.

The predators are blacks again, however, when the plot shifts into crack conspiracy territory. Evil sheep in high places are infecting innocent predators with a potent drug that causes them to revert to violence, in order to discredit predators like the mayor of Zootopia, a lion, and make all predators a permanent underclass.

As you might have noticed already, the metaphor of using the prey animals as whites and the predators as blacks or Muslims  in order to condemn bias and bigotry has some real problems. Isn’t it racially provocative to identify African Americans with the predators? The movie keeps undermining its own messages throughout. For example, a main theme of the film is that stereotyping is wrong, yet the writers happily use stereotypes for laughs when it suits them. In a genuinely hilarious riff on the “Slow Talkers of America” skit by Bob and Ray, the Department of Motor Vehicles is completely staffed with sloths who move and speak infuriatingly slowly. Later, a group of timber wolves are outwitted because as soon as one is induced to howl, all the rest mindlessly howl too, and lose concentration on the task at hand. There is an extended “Godfather” parody in which a minuscule shrew-Don Corleone imitates Marlon Brando and embodies every Italian mobster stereotype, including a big-haired daughter, who is getting married. Stereotyping is wrong,  says “Zootopia,” unless it gets big yucks.

Meanwhile, Judy, the heroine, is a corrupt and irresponsible cop.

When she is assigned as a meter maid (sexism in the police squad!), she resolves to give out 200 tickets, twice her assigned  quota, for Zootopia, like most large cities, employs parking tickets as a regressive revenue source rather than fair or legitimate law enforcement) before noon. This showboating requires her to ticket cars of citizens nanoseconds after the meter flag drops, thus  ruthlessly exploiting unfortunate drivers for her own career advancement agenda. Soon she is chasing a doughnut thief, who leads her into a tiny shrew and mole section of the city where both the bunny-cop  and whatever the thief is are relative giants. Judy and her perp threaten to crush the populace with every step, so the chase is like a high speed police auto chase on a crowded highway but far worse, endangering the lives of hundreds, including children.

Judy does perform some ingenious rescues of some of the potential squashing victims, but they were only endangered because of her reckless and unethical conduct. As the plot unfolds, we see Judy threaten criminal charges  to force individuals to do her bidding, then allow the law-breakers to escape consequences because they assisted her. She also performs a property search without a warrant, and admits as much.

If you can stop all of this from taking you out of the movie (I could—most of the time) there’s still plenty of entertainment in “Zootopia.” The writers, however forfeit the right to preach values and ethics when they hypocritically celebrate unethical conduct at will, violate their own stated principles, and try to indoctrinate children into regarding anti-terrorist concerns as Islamophobia.

18 thoughts on ““Zootopia” Is Unethical—But Funny!

  1. “No animated film in memory, however, has set out to pound specific political and social points of view into the brains of kids as blatantly, relentlessly and ambitiously as “Zootopia.””

    Have you seen “The Lorax”?

  2. Glad you went to this movie so I don’t have to. I’ve grown tired of Disney and Dreamworks and Pixar. Too preachy and saccharine. And here we are living in the future old Uncle Walt drew for us as kids in the ’50s. No flying cars yet but lots of indoctrination from his studios. I think he’d be horrified. I don’t remember that being part of the future we were told about on Sunday nights.

  3. I’ve seen “Interpretations” on Zootopia that are all over the social and political map. Everything from racism to Islamaphobia. Right, left and the middle. Everyone has skin in the nonsense game. Guess what? Total BS!

    Here is the real story – a new marketing juggernaut for Disney et al. Let the money roll in. Hell….Lion King is at 2.5 B and climbing and that had all sorts of connotations.

    Took my four-year-old granddaughter to it and some of the clever Soupy Sales type humor for parents was apparent. What better place to put sloths but the RMV.

  4. Wait. I agree with you about the unethical policing — I noticed that as well.

    But, the overwhelming of the movie is far more simple than you laid out here — that message is “racism is bad.” That’s it Jack.

  5. What’s especially ridiculous is the way this movie is being ‘reported’ on. Pundits and political groups are calling this out for the same things you are, but then applauding them. It’s the new ‘stunning and brave’. The problem is that there’s a large section, perhaps even a majority, relying on talking points memos because they’ve never actually seen it. It’s obvious.

    The number of sites, for instance, that said that prey bullied predators throughout the movie for instance… Didn’t happen. Sure, (spoiler alert) the lamb ended up being the bad guy, but only after it had been made abjectly clear that she had been the victim of bullying for years, as the vice mayor, to a lion, her office was in the boiler room, she was basically a secretary, and she was harangued constantly. There were other examples; The very first scene in the movie had Judy and her friends bullied by a fox, for instance… These aren’t hard to come up with. The one reversal to that was when Nick (The Fox) had a flashback to when he tried to join a scout troupe, and they prey ganged up on him. As far as I can tell, that one-off is being used as the rule, and they’re ignoring probably a hour of content to the contrary. Giving them the benefit of the doubt requires me to think that they haven’t seen what they deign to talk about.

    I did however, think the police force makeup had something to say. Cheif Bogo was a water buffalo, and his force didn’t draw the line at predator and prey. The line was obviously size, where buffalo, elephants and rhinos worked beside tigers, bears and wolves. The message being that it didn’t matter who you were, so much as what you could do, and you couldn’t very well stop an elephant if you’re a bunny. God forbid some people be told that they CAN’T do something because of their relative ability though, so the movie had to prove this pernicious stereotype wrong. Next: Zootopia 2: Where a mouse wants to become a firefighter and has to carry a hippo out a window.

    • You are right; the fox’s traumatic experience and Judy’s with one fox bully did not suggest a culture-wide pattern. And the predator/prey metaphor broke down in many ways, sending messages that probably weren’t intended. The writers lost control in a metaphor mess. Was the assistant mayor sheep a victim of sexual discrimination, or predator vs. prey harassment, or just mayeb the lion-mayor didn’t trust her—for good reason, as it turns out.

      One critic carried out the Muslim metaphor to be an extended Obama parallel: the lion was the Muslim leader who was hiding the victims of the savagery outbreak in “Gitmo” to protect himself. That’s a stretch.

  6. We don’t need indoctrination camps for our youth anymore; the masses willingly dig deep in their own pockets to pay hefty fees to others so they can walk into movie theaters with their kids and turn on cable TV to pick their own forms of social indoctrination while they enjoy eating popcorn, drinking soda, mindlessly laugh along with the predetermined laugh tracks, and immerse themselves into the identity of the fictional protagonist.

    This is just a wee bit inline with that discussion a while back about The Affair and how people believe this fictional stuff as being real and can’t seem to separate fiction from real life. It’s quite clear that Disney is using this movie to indoctrinate youth.

  7. We actually had a discussion afterwards about recording people without their knowledge. Even if you’re not a cop, it’s illegal in a lot of places. Like MD, where we live. It’s not usable in court if you’re law enforcement, no matter where you are, without a warrant beforehand. And yeah, the prey were representing every minority, depending on when and what the story needed… There were a few other discussions, even with the 4-yo, but the 10-yo really got a lot out of it. I wouldn’t say indoctrinated, though. But YMMV.

  8. I wish I could remember if there were any works of fiction that capture species-agnostic ethics in a clear and nuanced fashion. As it stands, this would be a good time to lay down some simple principles.

    1. Always give people a chance to prove you wrong about them, except where you have good reason to believe doing so would risk imminent harm to someone.
    2. If you have reasonable confidence that you can predict something about someone, even if it’s only based on their appearance, by all means use that to improve your ability to put them at ease, show them respect, and keep them safe. Don’t go overboard trying to anticipate them, though; that doesn’t put anyone at ease. It just makes them self-conscious. This rule does not supersede rule 1. (Example: If someone dresses in a way that indicates they probably have religious dietary restrictions, and they order something that contains a taboo food and you think it might have been a mistake, you might casually mention list the ingredients to them in the process of describing why they made a good choice.)
    3. Try to adapt your activities and systems to include others who might otherwise be excluded because of physical form, health, or language or cultural barriers. Empathy as a skill involves establishing bonds with people who are different, by individualizing interactions. Cleverness involves twisting paths to open possibilities that weren’t obviously available.
    4. Don’t expect rule 3 to always be feasible. It’s based on empathy, cleverness, and other chaos-aligned mindsets, and as such doesn’t lend itself well to rules or systematization at all. Focus on what people can do, entice others to help, but don’t try to restructure everything based on an inconvenience, and don’t force people to experience the same outcomes in all things.
    5. No matter how many people have done something, nor for how long, it doesn’t mean it’s right. (Has anyone made the serious claim that turning predators into non-predators in the process of creating their society was cultural imperialism?)

    Neither rules nor empathy alone can make a great society. But semantics (rules) and empathy together, as communication, give interactions at all levels the chance to be the best they can be.

    There. Now you can avoid being a bigot in a world where you can judge by appearances and not often be wrong.

    As a side note, did anyone in the movie consider that while it’s reasonable to avoid hanging around predators in dark alleys when they aren’t feeling well, it’d be nice to give them a bit of sympathy? They just learned that they are at risk of losing their minds and hurting their prey friends. Anyone in the movie consider that perhaps they don’t feel very good about that?

  9. The predators weren’t blacks or Muslims. The predators represented every minority. The represented black people, Muslims, gays, everyone who is minority in America and isn’t treated fairly. Also it makes sense for predators to be the minority seeing has prey do outnumber preds 10 to 1 in real life.

  10. An old post, but I finally watched the film, so I think it needs revisiting. In an abundance of caution: “Spoilers here, spoilers there, spoilers everywhere!”. Granted, if you’ve waited longer than me and still care, tough. I have a couple observations that might mitigate some of the unethical points expressed above. Not fully, but partially.

    Generally speaking, the police chief seemed to be the most competent and ethical character in the whole movie. He took no bullshit (ironically!). He accurately observed Officer Hops’ physical limitations and relative inexperience, and assigned her to a job she could handle, meter maid. He made a passing comment about a “quota” for parking tickets, and she over-zealously pursued this task hoping to show her worth. In a deleted scene on the DVD, this was shown to have come back to bite her in her tail, as the whole city was angry with her, specifically. The chief was not impressed.

    The retrogressive tax angle served an important plot point, although one that will go right over the heads of the target preteen audience. It showed that Zootopia was a flawed city, that it could not live up to its reputation as a utopian society where everyone got along. Another deleted scene really rammed this premise through, and it is almost a shame it did not make it. Originally, all the predators were required to wear a shock collar to discourage aggressive behavior. It was fully acknowledged that predators were potentially dangerous to prey animals. This was also portrayed as unfair and discriminatory. It built up the interspecies animosity, at least better explaining the unethical overreaction of the cities residents to Officer Hops’ press conference answers.

    Going back to the police chief, when Hops’ went beyond her duties and nearly trampled Mouse-Town, the chief rightly fired her on the spot. It was only the [final spoiler warning!] corrupt deputy mayor Ms. Lambchop, that shielded her from the consequences. This was originally played as a comedic mishap, but given the depth of her scheming, it seems much more deliberate and sinister in retrospect, with the deputy likely listening through the keyhole (although, again, way above the heads of its younger audience members).

    Some of Hops actions were just wrong. Breaking into the limo company was only mitigated by the rule of funny, where nearly every cop show will take the liberty of inventing “probable cause” to bypass the need to stop and call a judge. Everyone does it. Rationalized movie trope.

    Resorting to torturing the weasel with the help of Don Corleone in shrew form; this disturbed me. Again, played off with the rule of funny, with some justification based on the imminent health risk, but mostly it was Officer Hops job on the line. The Police Chief gave her 48 hours to find the missing otter, because he assumed Hops would fail and he have an unimpeachable reason to fire her. I do not believe he could have anticipated the number of civil rights violations she could commit in that time frame. Hops did, however, almost smush a city full of mice to retrieve a box of onions (though they were “howler bulbs” – told you the last time would be the final spoiler warning! – that were the cause of the predator aggression.)

    The last point I think needs mentioning is the press conference. Hops gave accurate information, that aggression outbursts were only effecting predators. However, Hops was only shown to have a fifth-grade understanding of evolutionary behavior from the opening credits. Her speculation that predators were regressing was entirely inappropriate, even for a cartoon. The affected animals were not at all displaying classic predatory behavior. Most predators are extremely cool and collected when ready to attack.

    The affected animals, however, were demonstrating extreme aggression – most health predators are only aggressive when provoked, as are prey for that matter (making the agitation collars deleted from the movie unscientific gibberish). Illness also causes aggression, and would have been the logical conclusion to make. Had Hops said that there appeared to be an illness that targeted predators, she would have nothing to apologize for. She bungled the press conference, causing panic, and that is what she rightfully apologized for at the end of the movie.

    Despite her ethical short-comings, Officer Hops did unravel a straight up genocidal terrorist takeover of Zootopia. This was, of course, moral luck on her part. She was rightfully almost fired on her first or second day for reckless endangerment and incompetence. She rightfully resigned for her role in the mayhem midway through the movie, even when corrupt deputy mayor Lambchop tried to protect and promote her (again only because of her nefarious aims). Hops then took on great personal risk to save the city and at least 10% of its residences from great harm.

    The movie is one big grey area of law and ethics. As a kids movie, it likely fails in its in preaching. As an adult story of a cop navigating tricky waters, it does a pretty decent job at making Officer Hops choices not completely arbitrary and reckless. And indeed, it was funny.

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