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Zootopia wants to teach kids about prejudice. Is it accidentally sending the wrong message?

The film's central metaphor doesn't entirely work once you start to break it down. But does that matter?

Nick and Judy read their great reviews.
Nick and Judy read their great reviews.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Reviews of Zootopia, Disney's new animated detective story about a rabbit cop, a con artist fox, and the animal-filled city they call home, have been overwhelmingly positive. The film's box office has been great too, with an opening weekend of more than $73 million in the US and Canada alone.

But those reviews don't just focus on the film's solid mystery, or its great gags, or even its terrific character work. Overwhelmingly, they praise the film's central message, one that aims to help kids confront issues of prejudice — and maybe even the roots of police brutality.

And yet the more you think about that central message, the more Zootopia's status as a movie about a bunch of animals seems to undercut it, at least a little bit. It's impossible to escape the idea that regardless of the lessons Zootopia teaches, the idea of some animals being predators and some being prey doesn't track very well against racial dynamics in our own world, thus creating a confusing moral.

If you haven't seen the film yet, you can read more about how this works in my earlier review.

But if you have, here are some thoughts on how Zootopia does — and doesn't — tell effective stories about prejudice.

The case for Zootopia

Nick and Judy are just a little suspicious of each other.

First, let's talk about what Zootopia's message actually is.

The film centers on Judy Hopps, the first rabbit on Zootopia's police force. Over the course of the film, she is continually underestimated and overlooked, because a creature as small and non-vicious as a rabbit could never be a good police officer. But Judy longs to make the world a better place, and she's undeterred by those who think she's not cut out for the job.

Judy's journey roughly parallels those of women who are trailblazers in any field. She's frequently underestimated, simply by virtue of who she is, and she's more or less seen as a token hire by those who hold positions of authority within the police force. Crucially, however, Judy constantly being underestimated will also play well with kids, who might long to do great things but will always be shut out of adult spaces for obvious reasons. The way she's positioned as smaller and physically weaker is a classic example of a character who's meant to gain kids' sympathies.

But even if Judy is a minority in her workplace, she's part of the majority culture of Zootopia in another way: She's "prey." Just like the animal kingdom, the city is 90 percent prey and 10 percent predators, and that means Judy and other prey animals have a lot of unexamined assumptions about the predators in their midst.

Late in the film, Judy discovers that several animals who have disappeared (the film's central mystery) are all predators who have "gone savage," reverting to their animal roots (which the film posits the animal kingdom has evolved beyond) and attacking prey. She holds a press conference after seemingly cracking this case, suggesting the drive to attack smaller, weaker beings is simply part of a predator's biology, which causes the minority to suspect and fear the majority.

Her message isn't terribly subtle, but that's typical for a film like this. And in case kids aren't getting the point, Judy drives it home in a monologue to her friend Nick, a fox. It was wrong of her to assume something about him simply because he's a predator, especially in her position as a police officer.

But we also see this concept discussed from Nick's point of view, via a flashback to a painful childhood incident where he was invited to join a group analogous to the Boy Scouts, but then was muzzled because the prey animals who were his fellow members considered him too dangerous. It's a deeply sad moment, and Zootopia directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore turn it into something out of an emotional horror film, all disorienting close-ups and shadows.

Zootopia might have boiled down a whole bunch of issues relating to prejudice and discrimination into its overarching "predators versus prey" dynamic, oversimplifying itself to a fault. But that allows its metaphor to be slippery enough to comment on all sorts of different topics.

And as anyone who's listened to fairy tales or fables knows, metaphors are how we tend to offer moral instruction through storytelling. Make this story too specific to human beings, and it runs the risk of being preachy or of having its message shrugged off. But tell it as a larger metaphor, and it's better able to connect with its target audience.

But there's also a case against Zootopia

Hopps and Wilde go to the DMV, which is run by sloths, of course.
The sloths are slow in Zootopia, and presumably if a sloth wanted to be really fast, it couldn't be. Hence, believing in a "sloths are slow" stereotype would be accurate. I hope you can see where I'm going with this.

In his review of the film for, critic Matt Zoller Seitz says it would be just as possible for racist viewers to leave Zootopia and believe the film bolstered their point of view, despite how obviously it would prefer you think otherwise. (Birth Movies Death's Devin Faraci makes a similar argument.)

There's some truth to what Seitz and Faraci are saying. For one thing, many of Zootopia's gags rely on what are, for all intents and purposes, animal stereotypes: Sloths are slow, bunnies multiply, etc. For another, the use of the word "predator" — which carries all kinds of bad connotations when it comes to American race relations — is poorly coded when you make the leap from Zootopia's specific universe to ours.

The most natural line to draw between the two is that Zootopia's predators stand in for black men in our world, and one needs only look at the resurfacing of Hillary Clinton's "superpredators" clip from the '90s to know why that's potentially inflammatory territory.

But all of this pales in comparison to the fact that when you scrutinize Zootopia's core metaphor for even a second, it struggles to make sense on a literal level. Yes, the film's message is that Judy learns to trust Nick, even though he's predator and she's prey. But on some other level, we all know that an actual rabbit is right to be afraid of an actual fox — and that muddies the movie's message considerably.

Zootopia tries to cover for this by saying that in its world, predators and prey used to have a biologically antagonistic relationship, but both sides have evolved past that relationship to arrive at this new, more enlightened future. (It also never reveals what, exactly, predators eat, which is disquieting to think about.)

The problem, as you can see, is the movie's suggestion that at one time prey animals were right to be suspicious of predators — and might still be, if things were to change just enough (say, due to a secret chemical formula being used as part of a conspiracy to cause fear and suspicion of predators, which is what's happening in the film). Apply this lesson to our world, and it becomes all the more troubling.

Yet there's really no way for Zootopia to tell this particular story, about animals, without encountering this specific problem. As a crime story, the film needs the threat of real danger to create dramatic stakes. And as a morally instructive fable, it needs to examine these issues of prejudice.

But the fact remains that the more you think about Zootopia's main metaphor, the more it falls apart on a level that correlates to our reality. However, maybe that's the point.

Zootopia ultimately wants to tell a story about prejudice in general

The city of Zootopia is a gleaming example of what could be.

When Zootopia was first announced to the public in 2013, it had almost certainly been in development for some time. (To guess just how long, consider that Howard — who initially conceived of the project — released his last film, Tangled, in 2010.) And while issues of prejudice and police brutality are by no means new ones, they're much more potent in the media right now than they were when the film was initially developed.

Thus, thanks to the timing of its release, Zootopia is being read as a direct commentary on contemporary issues. And maybe it is! The film's storyline was heavily revised in just the past year, to make Judy the protagonist instead of Nick. And by shifting to her point of view, its statements about anti-predator prejudice must have been bolstered considerably.

But at the same time, Zootopia's metaphor is open and general enough to be more elastic than any specific reading of it. Animals have long been favorite symbols in these sorts of stories, because while humans are familiar with animals, animals are still alien enough to reflect our own worst qualities without being off-putting. In a story, an animal can be human-ish — but it's always just an animal.

Look, for instance, at another classic kids' tale that tackles issues of prejudice via animal protagonists: the talking pig book turned movie Babe. The logistics of the film, concerning a pig who wants to herd sheep, get more ridiculous the more you think about them. But the overall point — about not judging anyone (or any pig) by physical appearance — shines through.

And that, ultimately, is what Zootopia is going for. It's possible to quibble with the broader implications of the film's world and how they affect its message. But it leaves you with an overall feeling of visual splendor and imagination.

The city of Zootopia is the ultimate melting pot, a place where lots and lots of different species coexist in harmony, even if they sometimes unfairly judge each other. And the film presents that sense of community as something worth overcoming one's own prejudices to save.

Zootopia isn't a perfect place, but it's made better by everyone living in it together. And so, it argues, is our own world.

Zootopia is playing in theaters nationwide.