This review contains spoilers.
How do you talk to children about racism? It’s a question that appears to have been on the minds of the creators of the 2016 animated Disney film Zootopia, and their answer to it is, perhaps not surprisingly, faintly unsatisfactory.
The film follows Judy Hopps, a rabbit from a town way out in the sticks who moves to the eponymous big city to become Zootopia’s first bunny police officer. Despite scoring top marks at police academy, she’s assigned to traffic warden duty owing to her colleagues’ discriminatory misconceptions about the kinds of work rabbits are capable of doing. But when she overhears a distraught lady otter begging her superior for help finding her missing husband, Judy sees an opportunity to prove her quality. The chief of police presents her with an ultimatum: solve the case in 48 hours, or resign.
First, the good things. The city of Zootopia is beautifully rendered: the intricate detail of its street scenes is charming in the same way a doll’s house is charming, the things of real life depicted in aestheticised miniature. An early montage depicts an urban environment that has been consciously designed to accommodate animals of all sizes and shapes, allowing everyone to participate fully in its life: a utopia of accessible design. I like, too, how these beatific first scenes are undercut by the depiction of the racism at work in the city – not only in the police force’s failure to recognise Judy’s abilities, but also in the way deuteragonist Nick is denied service in an ice-cream shop because he is a fox, and therefore obviously a criminal. (The fact that Nick is actually a con artist – on the principle that he might as well do all the crimes people assume he does anyway – is a nice touch, an acknowledgement of the trap racist stereotypes set for oppressed people.) Utopia is, in most cases, untrustworthy: what darknesses is that aestheticised surface hiding?
It’s when the main plot gets going that things start to fall apart a bit. In the course of her investigations, Judy discovers that predators who have previously lived quiet and civilised lives in the city have been “going savage” and attacking prey animals. Eventually, it comes out that the city’s assistant mayor, an apparently harmless white sheep named Dawn Bellwether, has developed a psychotropic drug that causes predators to act in this way in order to provoke fear and anger among the prey population and turn them against the predators. After a dramatic showdown in the city’s natural history museum, Judy and Nick lure Bellwether into a confession, have her arrested, and cure the drugged predators, and thus the film’s version of white supremacy is more or less solved.
It’s not that this is an entirely mendacious view of how racism works, and there are some nice, thoughtful touches. Making the villain an apparently harmless white sheep, and the racist characters prey animals who are typically associated with gentleness and companionship, plays on the respectability politics that’s often at work in racist discourse. It’s just that the film falls down in its understanding of racism as a structural force whose effects go beyond the efforts of a few bad actors. In Zootopia, racism is something that can be combatted by a few plucky individuals – Judy and Nick, mostly – working outside social institutions (in this case, the police force). And, although Judy clearly faces discrimination from within the police force, the film also fails to reckon fully with the looming spectre of racist police violence.
Additionally, there’s a glaring problem with the film’s central metaphor: the prey animals’ fear of the predators is not irrational, as racism is, because predators are actually dangerous to prey. (One question that Zootopia doesn’t seem to want us to ask is: what do all these anthropomorphised obligate carnivores eat?) The film is at pains to establish a parallel between the damaging rhetoric that Bellwether promulgates about “predatory biology” and the essentialist stereotypes that real-world white supremacists repeat and disseminate, but these things aren’t actually analogous, because predatory biology is real. So the film ends up inadvertently reinforcing essentialist stereotypes that cast the racialised Other as intrinsically violent/threatening, rather than rebutting them as it intends to do.
This is a trap that a fair amount of speculative fiction that attempts to tackle themes of institutional oppression falls into, particularly in the field of paranormal romance: all those novels about vampire liberation tend conveniently to ignore the fact that vampires do actually pose a physical threat to human populations. So it’s not especially surprising that an animated Disney film directed by two white guys fell for it too. Zootopia has its heart in the right place, and some of the points it has to make are, for a mainstream would-be blockbuster, genuinely insightful. But as a film about real-world racism it fails, finally, to hang together.