Although the tone of Zootopia is more buddy-cop than genuine neo-noir, the most startling, bracing moments of Disney’s newest blissful concoction are when the busy animation suffuses into sly dances of negative space and subfuscous, shady imagery. A nimble midnight fright dalliance to the rainforest district of the mega-city of Zootopia evokes memories of Val Lewton as it plays with impressionistic fog to visualize the hidden darkness and barely-subsumed discontent lingering in the hearts and minds of the vague, surface-level utopia the film is set in. The sequence, where the overbearing, cotton-candy lightness of the city is set adrift to reveal the brimming darkness lurking undertow, encapsulates the concealed friction and fissure underlying the post-racial visage of Zootopia.
Bathing over the advertisements for hope and the dreams of would-be rabble-rousers sticking up their necks to wander their own errant path of non-conformity, the film suggests that real progress is much stickier than a dream or a trail-blazing vision. The poster child for such trail-blazing progressivism is diminutive female rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who arrives in the kaleidoscopic beacon-of-positivity with her ears perked up and her head held high, welcoming a modern city where predator and prey of all species have learned to live in harmony. Until, that is, the inter-species bond is revealed as a tested, nearly fractured chainlink threatened by the corrosion of discrimination and the volatility of prefigured expectations.
For an ostensible work of children’s fiction, Zootopia is surprisingly inveterate in its commitment to shattering the good cheer of colorblindness, whilst only seldom shifting into pandering. It’s wily and fleet-footed enough to suggest and intimate race and gender bias while also doubling-back to interrogate the intersectionalities and multifaceted, contorted entanglements of discrimination that can shift on a dime and warp in magnitude as well as direction. For instance, the King of the Jungle, the lion, is still the leader of Zootopia – an unstated reminder that, despite shifts in the status quo – the previously privileged still retain power in nominally more freeing times. Yet when an outbreak of “savagery” breaks out among the once-predators of the world, the court of public opinion tremulously reorganizes itself to favor a new wave of now-united prey, fighting against a common enemy.
Without spoiling too much, Zootopia implores us to consider the ease with which even the nominally progressive among us, like the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Judy, shift to barely-contained predilections for too-easy genetics-first arguments wherein social construction is written off as biological difference. Eventually, the film amusingly suggests the presences of sheep in wolf clothing, reminding us to look beyond the pale of preconception and into the diaphanous but shard-strewn fabric of typecasting individuals based on illusory claims that we are all limited by our DNA.
Elsewhere, the sharpest commentary arrives in the form of Judy’s initially recalcitrant partner, a sly fox named Nick Wilde (voice of Jason Bateman, who adds an easily flustered but charmingly disobedient air to the characterization). Initially, the film casts him as a con only to devilishly bash notions of respectability politics by demanding that not only the supposed “successful” minorities are socially worthwhile. Thankfully, there’s no recourse to respectability politics with Nick, the film exhibiting precious little of the expected requests for Nick to “prove” his worth by turning away from his criminal ways, like your dad might suggest in championing Barack Obama or trumpeting the value of Ben Carson as “two of the good ones”.
Admittedly, one ought not expect a polemic out of the otherwise briskly amusing, prickly Disney film, directed with aplomb, wit, and panache if not an obstreperous vivacity or a radiant incandescence. Little moments of surprising incisiveness abound – Judy thinks she’s complimenting Nick by calling him “surprisingly articulate”, the “for a fox” suggested in her pandering facial expression, as though she’s doing her good deed for the day. But Zootopia also misses the mark in ways that may be inextricably, depressingly linked to the bottomless well of societal oppression that defies easy narratives about overcoming adversity today.
For one, Zootopia lacquers its own respectability by dipping into the well-worn trope of police-officer as hero, backing a rabbit who wishes to buck trends and emerge as a successful savior of society in blue. Despite the film’s somewhat widened net with regards to discrimination, legitimately questioning the police force remains outside the grip of a film that desperately wishes to hold down weekend after weekend at the US box office. Conveniently, Zootopia neglects to mention that the very officers it espouses as heroes are, in fact, embroiled within the racial conflict of modern society rather than valiant crusaders against it. The idea that an officer might serve as an agent of oppression is omitted here, with the more pernicious reality that, for a black minority in America, dreaming of being a police officer is often a ticket to self-policing their own body via policing their own race, proving their own value by contrasting themselves with the members of their race who fellow police officers see as capricious, vilified social miscreants. Imagine a Zootopia where Judy was tasked with ticketing hundreds of fellow rabbits, rather than the amorphous cars she interrupts in the film that was actually produced.
So Zootopia steps into difficult, troubled waters, but more trepidatiously than a truly bold film might have. It’s still viable, meaningfully worthwhile entertainment for children, an introduction to a conversation but certainly not an endpoint. Still, a clouded threat rolls over Disney’s latest effort: it may neglect or actively campaign against as many questions as it legitimately addresses (a DMV sequence is unbearably racist in light of real-world preconceptions about who works at the much-chagrined establishment). Worse, for all its successes, Zootopia may not so much retrain our conceptions of social justice but reentrench preexisting mind-colonizers such as the incessant and inaccurate belief that plucky individuals can nearly singlehandedly reorient our understanding of racism.
Compare Zootopia, if you will, to Spike Lee’s recent, underrated Chi-Raq, a work that – with a hyperbolic, theatrical, fable-like tenor and a pop-art tone – subcutaneously, self-reflexively threatens its own tale of similar individuals ending oppression by thornily suggesting at the level of form that its vision of conquest is but a false, unachievable dream. Zooptopia, for all its estimable strengths, evinces no such self-critique. Sure, it’s merely a kid’s film, but in some ways, stepping into racial waters without truly committing to the deep dive is as insidious as it is valuable. By all means, see and delight in Zootopia, but temper the belief that one film, like one person, can truly change the world. And, if one truly values animation as a viable means of both art and social change, don’t excuse family entertainment because it’s “for kids” – that’s selling the power of the medium mightily short indeed.