I was amazed at the finesse and the artistry with which this film was put together. I will say that I have a soft spot for animation. The nuance and the detail with which these narratives are crafted, is pretty remarkable. I wish I could draw and animate like this.
Zootopia piqued my interest quite a bit. Granted there were half a dozen writers penning this thing down, yet it is a fine effort at animated filmmaking. I have also read through quite a bit of competing critiques and appreciation for the film. People have loved it for contextualizing/talking about racism and prejudice, and on the flip side there is a lot of problematic messaging in the film that has been called out. I think while the intention of the film is to speak to race politics, discrimination, feminism, from a simplistic, less critical prism, the film’s premise however wasn’t as well thought out, as it perhaps could have been.
The premise I think is two fold: physically less gifted creatures (in this case Judy the Bunny) cannot aspire to go against the grain and become a cop. Judy does that and not only aces the Zootopia Police Academy, but also ends up joining the police force. This right there is a: defy this age-old stereotype against the subtle yet evident concerns of one’s parents and break the mould. We have seen stories told about this and similar feats are a dime a dozen. Now what Zootopia does is that it continues to play the stereotype more and more as the film goes along. All cops are big, tall, mean looking animals (the Police Chief is a Buffalo with horns), and for obvious reasons Judy doesn’t fit in. She is handed parking meter duty and that’s as far as she will go in making her dreams to be a cop a reality. So the underdog, the outsider, the misfit is the protagonist.
The second premise is that race politics can be turned on its head and yet make complete sense to a majority of the people. Zootopia begins to scratch the surface and dig a little deeper, but just a little. The prim and colourful Zootopia-hoods are not as utopian as they seem anymore. Judy encounters Nick the fox, who is peddling away, un-freezing large icicles and selling them to corporate pigwigs, who mechanically feed on them right after work. Suddenly, there are random and sudden disappearances that are being reported and Judy must find out why, within 48 hours to keep her job. The world of Zootopia is about to turn as Nick and Judy come together to fight crime.
All this while the film is being passively political, some messaging, yet staying true to what I call ‘socially relevant entertainment’, and then the twist. We have animals that are turning rouge and vanishing into Zootopian air. The Mayor (the kind and generous Leodore Lionheart) needs to find out what’s happening. The revelation – they are being stung by this serum that brings out the predatory nature in them — all of which is the brainchild of the Jenny the evil Sheep (Deputy Mayor). Now right there, I was like, huh?
The majority is non-predatory and the story veers into a discussion of whether being ‘predatory’ is innate and how we approach it and respond to it?
The obvious comparison here is to the majority and relatively homogenous people (particularly in North America and Europe) and the ‘predatory’ minority (blacks, browns, queers, and other non-white folk), all of whom would actually add up to a joint majority. But demographics aside, the film explains how ‘seemingly predatory’ behaviour is used to stereotype everyone, put everyone behind bars, for these predators though dormant temporarily, might turn violent. But that’s not what racism, misogyny, or homophobia is all about. It may be irrational to an extent (or that’s what the film is saying) but deep at the heart of it, it’s based on power. And very rational, thought out, oftentimes willfully designed power. The only driving force behind any form of discrimination is power, with a big P, that it gives the perpetrator vis-a-vis the victim. And that’s what Zootopia didn’t bring to me. This essential critique that is at the heart of any discourse around race, sexuality, feminism or any attempt to fight normativity. The simplification that a serum (some strange behaviour altering drug) can make us predators and isolate us from the majority people, who are inherently peaceful, is truly a utopian idea. And to further a conclusion that society exists in peace and tranquility, but a somewhat fragile peace, which could easily be overturned by the predator in some of us, just those select few???
I want to reiterate that Zootopia is a film with fantastic imagery, smart storytelling and a real attempt at talking about race politics. It even delves into the perils of capitalism and how Judy’s transition from simple village life to the big bad world of Zootopia, is not all peaches. It also has some on point dialogues of how the antagonist Jenny the Sheep explains her elevation to Deputy Mayor; for the Mayor needed the sheep vote (lol) or how Mr. Big the Shrew is a crime boss served by giant Polar Bears. So for all the laughs and the catchy dialogues, Zootopia serves the socially relevant entertainment quota. But from where I was sitting I wondered if I am being told that I am a predator waiting for my true nature to unleash or living on tether hooks, where society might falter any moment. (Zoo)topia after all is called that for good reason.