Paul O’Brien, who’s been writing excellent reviews of X-Men comics for years over at House to Astonish and other websites, occasionally notes that the X-Men don’t actually work all that well as a metaphor for oppressed minority groups, despite their frequent use as such. The argument goes, more or less, that one of the many reasons that real-life prejudice is stupid and evil is that the differences that divide human beings are superficial and non-threatening, that bigotry divides people artificially by creating perceived dangers. When examining the X-Men, however, the argument breaks down, because if you were dealing with people who not only could blast energy beams out of their eyes or cause people’s blood to explode but who had actually done so, frequently, you might have a legitimate reason to look at them askance.
The same is true for “Zootopia,” the latest Disney Animation offering and a film that takes place in a world populated by non-human, anthropomorphic mammals. Rabbits, foxes, lions and all other manner of mammals live together in this alternate reality, having evolved not only the ability to speak and walk upright, but also to eliminate the urge to hunt and eat each other. Still, there is an undercurrent of distrust between many of the species, with a particular dividing line between the animals formerly categorized as predators and prey. It is along this dividing line that “Zootopia” (also the name of this animal kingdom’s primary metropolis) places the bulk of its story, a tale about the city’s first bunny cop and her con man fox friend (Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman, both doing great work) seeking clues in a missing animals case.
“Zootopia” has jokes and visual aplomb, but it’s primarily interested in serving as a metaphor about American race relations – both modern and pre-Civil Rights Movement. It’s a pity that the film is too heavy-handed to serve as metaphor, instead falling into barely concealed allegory; change words like “fox” or “predator” or “bunny” into actual racial groups, and you’d barely have to make any other alterations to the script.
As such, you end up with a movie that is too obvious for adults but too grown-up for kids. Most of the movie’s non-visual gags are pop culture references children won’t understand (I counted “Breaking Bad,” “The Godfather” and “Speed,” among others) or coded allusions to adult topics like nudity, affirmative action or appropriation of the n-word. On the story front, the dialogue also lacks much to draw kids in. As an adult, I found the movie to be pretty funny, but the plot is full of logic holes, and the racial parallels are simultaneously too vague and too obvious.
With the exception of foxes, it’s never quite clear what prejudices the different species of animals feel toward each other, but the movie also spends so much time talking bluntly, almost academically, about the way that the prejudices affect them. Save for one or two scenes, it’s all text and no subtext; we mostly are told and not shown how bigotry affects the animals. It’s like a thinkpiece on real race problems with a sheep standing in.
The film’s obviousness in this regard only makes it more plain that, like the X-Men, the metaphor breaks down. The crux of the conflict between Officer Hopps and Nate the fox is that Hopps believes there could be some “biological component” – a phrase that is used verbatim in the movie – involved in a mysterious affliction that makes predators more dangerous. In real life, if a member of one race said this about another race, this would of course be dangerous, destructive hogwash. In a world made up of animals, Nate’s disgust with Hopps is far less understandable because there are a huge number of significant biological components that still differentiate each species; the city is even split into a variety of biomes to accommodate the animals’ survival needs. Additionally, though Hopps has never really been hunted by a predator, she doesn’t seem entirely unjustified in fearing them. After all, their biologies have been engineered to eat animals like her, and the first time she encounters one with the mystery affliction, it chases after her just like in prehistoric times.
Though “Zootopia” is poorly-written on a plot and thematic level, it does have other charms to recommend it. Though sometimes a bit obvious, it is pretty funny and has a strange sense of humor, setting up jokes and comedic scenarios that are unexpected but make sense within the world it’s created. And, like its most recent predecessor, “Big Hero 6,” its visuals are a treat. The movie is almost worth watching just for a couple of inventive ideas of what a mixed-species cityscape would look like, particularly a mad chase through a suburb populated by small rodents.
Though 2013’s “Frozen” is not my favorite offering of the House of Mouse’s last decade and a half of CGI films (that honor belongs to the timeless “Tangled”), it crafted a complete Disney experience: lush animation, good music and a charming story that also served as a message about being true to yourself. Many observers, myself included, believed that though the film still retained a little bit of the X-Men’s analogue problem, “Frozen” also served up a pretty coherent, somewhat understated metaphor about coming out of the closet.
“Zootopia” has no such subtlety, which is a shame. That said, if you see it, you still might have a laugh or two.