‘Zootopia’ delivers a mess of mixed messages

By Nate Taskin

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A scene from "Zootopia." (Photo courtesy Disney/TNS)

A scene from “Zootopia.” (Photo courtesy Disney/TNS)

“Zootopia” offers the most confused commentary that you’ll probably ever see in a Disney movie. It aims to use animals to create an allegory about racial dynamics in our society – an admirable goal for an animated children’s film – only to bungle its anti-racist message with complete analogical misfires.

The use of animals for allegory has always been a fruitful well. In “Animal Farm,” George Orwell demonstrated one of the best models for this device, yet he also showed that allegory must be used with care and precision. As far as parallels go, “Zootopia” has a fundamental confusion about how certain societal structures operate and how to represent them.

In some sloppy opening exposition, we learn that long ago the meek prey animals lived in constant fear of the savage predators. Once evolution does its thing, though, the animals – only mammals, because no birds or reptiles exist in this universe, apparently –  establish the city of Zootopia, where both predator and prey can live together in “harmony.”

Nevertheless, deep-seated racial (special?) tension still exists, and with a recent epidemic of predators gone “savage” – where, in an obvious allusion to the crack epidemic of the 80s, they revert to their violent, animalistic ways – the fragile peace between predator and prey faces eruption at any moment.

You would expect the prey animals to be the minority group, right? Wrong. In the world of “Zootopia,” predators are the ones who face the most oppression. The historically victimized people, the prey animals, are the ones in power, and make up the majority of Zootopia’s population. If you have even the slightest bit of social awareness, you should realize how no aspect of this parable reflects reality in any way.

Do I even have to explain the problems that arise when the presumed analogies for black people are coded as “predators?” “Zootopia” wants to have a nice political message about how deep down, we’re all the same and we all bleed red, yet it’s built around a completely wrongheaded foundation. Why would the group who lived in fear for centuries be the same group with the most power? Why would the group that stalked and feasted on the former be the ones who faced the most discrimination?

“Zootopia” was released in the wake of media coverage that brought to light older statements made by one of our presidential candidates in which she referred to black teenagers as “superpredators.” The film tries to suggest that the “biology” argument that white supremacists so love to spout is a load of claptrap, yet when it states outright that the predators do in fact come from a culture of violence and savagery, comments such as those are reaffirmed when they should be debunked.

In one scene, a rabbit clutches her young as a tiger sits next to her on the subway. It’s a sad, familiar moment completely undercut by the fact that, while it’s completely racist to suspect that a black man will mug you just because he is black, it is justifiable to suspect that an actual tiger wants to eat you. The shoddy metaphors compel us to side with the rabbit when we should side with the tiger. The film damns itself with its own lore.

As far as non-race-related details are concerned (though the race stuff pretty much overshadows any other aspect), “Zootopia” possesses a brand of humor more reminiscent of DreamWorks than Disney. There’s pop cultural references to “Frozen” and a bunch of silly apps, and the joke is that we recognize all this stuff, therefore it’s funny. It’s a smug style of humor that has never amused me, and often feels like it was crammed in there to ease boredom in hapless parents dragged to the theater.

I suppose it’s refreshing to see a company like Disney tackle this subject matter in the first place. This movie, after all, comes from the same studio that brought us “Song of the South” 70 years earlier. It’s nice that children are treated to a movie that preaches against prejudice. Yet at the same time, when 10 different people worked on the story and screenplay, you would think they could have avoided such thoughtless messages that minorities could snap and devour the white majority at any moment.

The film’s racial ugliness is born from irresponsibility rather than outright moral reprehensibility. “Zootopia” poorly articulates subject matter that is way more complicated than “hunter” and “hunted,” and it doesn’t even know which is which.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected]