Racism in the Animal Kingdom: A Review of Zootopia

zootopia

“I’ve heard it’s the best G-rated animal movie about police brutality and racism ever made.”

This is an example of the type of comment I’d heard about Zootopia prior to going to see the movie. But even with all of the buzz surrounding it, I wasn’t expecting to see a movie, much less a PG movie, that really tackled racism. I mean, of course a story about different types of animals living together in the same city has to have strong themes about everyone getting along. Honestly, I thought all of this talk about race was just people reading into more universal themes about friendship and harmony due to the current political and social climates in America.

I was wrong.

Zootopia is very much a fable about modern-day race relations. The film goes much deeper than simply espousing the idea that we should all live harmoniously and actually delves into some of the ways that people can be racist or that racist systems can affect people. The protagonist, Office Judy Hopps, is an example of the former. She is the first rabbit to be allowed into the Zootopia Police Force, as part of an affirmative action initiative, and she has to face the racism of her boss and fellow officers who don’t believe in her. However, she also has a lot of her own racist assumptions about other animals, which end up guiding some of her actions.

Then there’s Nick Wilde, a fox who is a con man, and is an example of former. In the world of Zootopia, foxes are viewed as sly and untrustworthy creatures, and some even view them as rather dangerous, like Judy’s parents for instance. Nick has internalized this view of himself and has decided that he’s not going to try to be anything other than what people expect him to be because he feels there’s nothing he can do to change the mindset of others.

I thought the way that both of these characters view, interact with, and deal with the culture of systemic racism in Zootopia was fairly nuanced, especially for a film targeted primarily at children.

Without giving away too much it is also, I think, a film that very much questions the nature of the media’s role in the way that we view different types of people. Judy and Nick navigate different aspects of racism in their own ways, but as the film builds we see the way that media can be used to push certain agendas that alienate or demonize specific subsets of people…or animals in this case.

Again, I thought this was fairly heavy stuff for a movie that is supposedly for kids.

But that isn’t to say that Zootopia gets everything right. Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch wrote a very interesting blog post about how he felt Zootopia travels into what he termed “the Uncanny Valley” in the way that it handles its portrayal of racism, especially in policing. I do agree with the points that he raises, on a certain level. The film doesn’t delve into all of the intricacies that make systemic racism so difficult to discuss, unpack as an issue, and ultimately try to solve. In the end, the story wraps up very neatly, which, if recent news stories have taught us anything, basically never happens. The discussions and arguments around race, racism, and policing continue to be very messy, even in situations where there was very obviously some wrongdoing and you would think opinion and outcome on the matter would be pretty clear cut.

However, I still think that Zootopia succeeds in its mission of being a fable about modern-day race relations. It is still a kid’s movie, and not a film that dives into the more realistic, nitty-gritty aspects of systemic racism and all of the different ways that it plays out in real life. But it is very much a movie that sends a positive message, and it is great to see a film targeting young audiences that asks people to question the assumptions they have about others and that could really get the ball rolling on discussions about race.

If you haven’t seen this film already, I highly recommend it. There is, in fact, a high likelihood that I’ll end up seeing it at least once more in theaters. It’s a truly enjoyable movie and everything from its characters, to its storytelling, to its visuals — like the high level of animation and the amazing backdrop that is the city of Zootopia — is incredibly well executed.

It seems rare to find a movie that is both highly topical and highly entertaining, but Zootopia is just that, and for me that raises it to a higher level than other films or shows out there.

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