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I'm not usually supportive of movies with oppression narratives that don’t feature actual oppressed groups of people (see: The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, etc.) — or at least, not of that aspect of them (I’ve been a diehard Potterhead for around ten years). When an oppression narrative is written in a way that mimics real life but takes out anything that actually makes it look like real life, the reaction is more that of guilt-free, black and white outrage that stays within the walls of the theater, rather than actual prolonged thought.
“These people are so evil! How could they treat all those people like that? But, I mean, they’re all white and white people aren’t actually oppressed, so that means it’s just fantasy and I don’t have to think about it anymore after I leave the theater.”
Zootopia, however, intrigued me because there weren’t any people. And it’s meant for kids! A movie about racism that’s intended for kids, doesn’t have any people, and includes frequent animal puns? Count me in.
The setup is pretty simple: long ago, predators ate prey and everything was violent and savage — but now, though there may still be some prejudice in the rural areas where Judy is from, over in the shining city of Zootopia all animals live together in peace and harmony and anyone can be anything!
Back home, Judy is told she will never achieve her dream of being a cop because she’s a bunny. But, although her size puts her at a disadvantage in training, Judy works hard, graduates top of her class, and become the first bunny cop.
Not so different from other kids’ movies, right? Protagonist is told they can’t do something, protagonist works hard and does it anyway, protagonist lives happily ever after. But here’s where Zootopia differs: Judy’s happily-ever-after is more of a kind-of-happily-but-mostly-really-complicated-ever-after.
Even though she’s achieved her goal against all odds, she’s still stereotyped and treated unfairly. While the other animals are given daring jobs that challenge their abilities, Judy is given parking duty. In the shining city of Zootopia, where anyone can be anything, one of the first people Judy tries to apprehend disregards her and tells her she’ll never be anything but a dumb bunny.
Now, this is way farther than I’ve ever seen any kids’ movie take racism, so I would’ve still been overjoyed if Disney had left it there, but they went ahead and took it a step further.
The animal who is racist towards Judy is racist towards her because he’s been the target of racism so often he’s learned to play by the racists’ rules.
Well, I guess, two steps further, since then Judy is racist to the animal who was racist to her because other people were racist to him. (This is the point where I check the logo on my DVD to make sure Disney really made this.)
This choice to raise the stakes just a little higher is what sets Zootopia apart from its peers. While many kids’ movies leave the message at “don’t bully, treat everyone fairly, the bad guy is bad and you shouldn’t be them, etc.,” Zootopia went ahead and allowed its protagonist to mess up and do things characteristically bad guys would do.
I’ll admit, I got a little confused at that point. I guess you get into a certain mode when you’re watching a movie that you think is predictable, and you start looking for certain things that you’re accustomed to seeing. “But, what’s the metaphor?”* I thought, “Who’s the bad guy?”
And the answer is, of course, that there is no “bad guy.” Well, not when it comes to Judy and Nick, at least — or even Gideon Grey, the fox who bullied Judy as a child and as an adult sincerely apologized to her for it. There are good characters who made bad choices and acted on bad parts of themselves, but later realized their mistakes and apologized for them.
That may not sound like much, but in Zootopia, the apologies aren’t just an “Oops, sorry,” and the movie keeps going. Judy gets a whole scene dedicated to hers. Gideon Grey doesn’t try to brush his mistakes off with “But, you know, I was young.” They both own up to what they did wrong, make their regret for their actions and new understanding of why it was wrong clear, and promise to do better.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s an extremely important thing to tell kids — especially in today’s callout culture, where the aim too often is just to “blast” the other person, rather than to actually try to see whose points hold water and acknowledge it if you realize yours don’t. Or even just in the realm of movies that tell kids to be the hero who’s always good and just and right; it’s nice to have a film that acknowledges that that’s the goal, but we don’t always live up to it right away and that’s okay.
The other important aspect of both apology scenes is that the characters who came forward and sincerely apologized were forgiven. People mess up. It doesn’t make them “problematic trash” that you should stop liking immediately and burn anything that has to do with them.
Zootopia is a movie that makes racism feel approachable to people who just learned it still exists, and one that will still give experts on the topic things to think about. It’s a movie that has somehow managed to make racism comfortable to discuss without diluting it too much.
And when the cast is entirely made up of animals, it leaves it up to the viewer to ask, “which one is me?” It lets people’s guards down. They don’t want to look like the bad guy, and they don’t have to. They just have to think for a while.
While still remaining upbeat and entertaining for younger kids, Zootopia doesn’t try to oversimplify the tangled and complex mess that is racism.
Also there are sloth jokes. And elephant puns. And moles from The Godfather.
*(Side note: I did come up with a metaphor, though, for that one bit and someone with art skills should totally draw it ’cause I really like it and for some reason most of the “Zootopia characters reimagined as humans” fan art has most of them as white people and that just doesn’t make any sense to me but that’s a different topic so anyway here’s the metaphor: Judy is a petite black woman with big grey fro-pigtails and Nick is a gruff-looking Muslim man and that’s why they both face the specific types of discrimination that they do.)