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.