‘Zootropolis’ (released in the U.S as ‘Zootopia’), the latest animated outing from Disney, is a kid’s film with vaulting ambition. Instead of only resorting to the tried-and-tested method of inserting a few adult jokes and references into screenplay as a nudge nudge to parents, or even crafting a humour that pleases adults and children alike (like 2015’s ‘Inside Out’), it attempts to be a complicated and daring allegory for racism in the 21st century. The story is thus; long ago mammals were divided by class and status but now, in the titular egalitarian city of mammals anyone can be anything they want, and Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) wants to be the first bunny on the ZPD (Zootropolis Police Department). She makes it, but is disappointed to have her illusions of world-saving toppled when she’s placed on permanent parking duty – that is until she’s given 48 hours to find Mr. Otterton, one of Zootropolis’ 14 missing mammals, and has to team up with the scheming fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to try and crack the case.
The racial subtext of ‘Zootropolis’ has received praise and criticism in equal measure. It is true that the allegory is messy, but that’s only because I went into this film expecting one. The clearest prejudice is faced by the predators. The accusations of ‘savagery’ are so clearly meant to reflect residual attitudes towards black people in our society (though the fact that this choice was made, and the initial choice to portray black people as predators has been criticised), and the film’s climax is almost shocking in how directly it comments on their institutionalised and systematic persecution (there is a clear parallel, for instance, with the American crack epidemic of the 1980s). However, the prey, such as Judy herself, are also presented as the ‘little guys’ who have suffered historic discrimination, and again, pointed references to our own culture are attached to them. Judy demands to be more than a ‘token’ bunny who enters the force in a ‘Mammal Inclusion Initiative’ and asks a predator colleague not to call her ‘cute’, because it’s only OK for bunnies to call each other that term. The racial metaphor is undoubtedly muddled by portraying racism as operating equally across all sections of society, though I think it’s fairly clear that the predators are supposed to be understood as the group most affected by discrimination. At it’s heart, ‘Zootropolis’ is making a sincere attempt to instill a progressive political message in children, and perhaps portraying all its characters as being limited and harmed by stereotyping is the most effective way to communicate this.
The complicated racial allegory wouldn’t succeed however, without a great film to frame it, and thankfully ‘Zootropolis’ is just that. It is a unravelling crime drama which avoids being too formulaic in its mystery, which is refreshing. All the performances are very good, with Ginnifer Goodwin condensing the traits of intense determination and pluckiness into a voice, and Jason Bateman being a particular stand-out (sidenote: why doesn’t Jason Bateman get to play this sarcastic slacker type more often? Since Michael Bluth he’s been a perpetual straight man). It is also deeply, truly funny. I had not seen a single clip from it beforehand, and honestly, the sloth scene takes a silly joke and magnifies it until it’s absurdly, feverishly hilarious. There is a scene which parodies ‘The Godfather’ that made me cry with laughter. Also, Shakira is in this film. She not only provides the original song but is a character, and it is glorious. ‘Zootropolis’ offers something for everyone – you might go expecting a funny kid’s film and leave deeply affected by the political message, or (like me), go for the racial allegory and leave having cried at the line ‘Grandmama made you a cannoli.’
By Ashley Woodvine
Ashley is a 17 year old from Norwich. She loves Belle and Sebastian, Taylor Swift, dancing badly and porridge, mostly. Her favourite films include Frances Ha, The Royal Tenenbaums and Beasts of the Southern Wild. She has a very deep affinity with that bit in Inside Llewyn Davis where he stares at toilet wall graffiti that says ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING?’. Tends to tweet about her life in an over-dramatic way@heartswellss.