Disney’s Zootopia may well be the most ambitious film of the year — animated or otherwise. Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush, the film is at once a pop-culture reference-laden kids’ movie, a Chinatown-inspired neo noir, and a look at American race relations through the lens of the animal kingdom. Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is an idealistic bunny who dreams of being in law enforcement someday. The only problem: No bunny has ever made it onto the force.
Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) knows how she feels. As a nine-year-old pup, he wanted to be in the Boy Scouts. But when Nick showed up to his first meeting, the other members threw a muzzle on him, explaining that they would never let a “predator” join their group. “If the world’s only gonna see a fox as shifty and untrustworthy, there’s no point trying to be anything else,” he explains. Since then, Nick has become a hustler, selling secondhand popsicles on the street for a living.
Zootopia presents a world in which society is divided between predators and prey, both of which have put aside their biological differences in an attempt to live in harmony. The film can be interpreted as an attempted mea culpa for the animation studio after Song of the South, the 1946 feature in which Uncle Remus relates the story of Br’er Rabbit, who is persecuted by the ax-wielding Br’er Fox. If you’re familiar with Song of the South, it’s likely because of its clumsy portrait of the Reconstruction-era South, which presents former slaves as jolly, contented storytellers. Unsurprisingly, Disney has never allowed the film to be released on video.
While tackling themes of race in a meaningful way is a major step forward for Disney, Zootopia shares the same issue that has long plagued depictions of race in pop culture. As in Paul Haggis’ Crash and the Broadway musical Avenue Q, all forms of racism and prejudice in Zootopia operate on a fairly level playing field. In Zootopia, nearly every animal experiences casual bigotry in their everyday life. In one scene, Nick is condescendingly referred to as “articulate,” a veiled reference to comments on how “well-spoken” President Barack Obama is. In another, Judy warns Nick never to touch a sheep’s wool without asking. The moment is a nod to an old adage about black hair.
This view of race relations — in which everyone harbors individual prejudice — strongly recalls “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from Avenue Q. As the song reminds us, “Everyone makes judgments based on race.” If the musical’s lone Asian-American, a girl named Christmas Eve, believes that Jewish people have lots of money and that taxi drivers smell bad, it more or less excuses other forms of racism — like Kate Monster, a white schoolteacher who lives in her neighborhood, telling jokes about black people.
Such actions, however, are only equal in a society where everyone has the same amount of privilege and institutional power. A well-educated white woman and a Japanese immigrant — who is also a non-native English speaker — do not. Statistics from the Center for Immigration Studies show that in New York, where Avenue Q is set, the average household income for first-generation immigrants is just $41,338. That’s more than 20 percent lower than the average income for those born in the US.
Race scholars often define racism a little differently than the general public. A middle schooler, for example, might understand that term to mean “hating someone based on the color of their skin,” but that’s only half of the equation. Groups such as the Anti-Racist Workshop define racism in a more complex way: “prejudice plus power.” As scholar Delmo Della-Dora explains, “Racism involves having the power to carry out systematic discriminatory practices through the major institutions of our society.” If Christmas Eve has less access to those institutions (i.e. less power) than Kate Monster, she has less ability to do anything about her individual prejudices. They simply don’t carry as much weight.
All forms of race-based stereotypes should be challenged and condemned, but what Avenue Q and Zootopia don’t seem to grasp is that there’s a very big difference between systemic racism and simply holding bigoted views. While Zootopia does make an effort to show racially exclusive professions like policing as engines of supremacy, the film is mostly driven by a look at individual worldviews. It’s more about diversity than racism itself.
This is a problem shared by Paul Haggis’ Crash, the divisive 2006 Oscar winner for Best Picture. The film is about a group of Los Angelenos forced to deal with deep-seated ignorance when they get into a series of car wrecks via loosely connected events. In the film, Jean Cabot (Sandra Bullock) and her husband, Rick (Brendan Fraser), are carjacked by two black men. When the pair get home at the end of the evening, she confronts him: She knew the men were trouble and didn’t say anything. Jean then has all the locks changed on her doors before she gets a look at the Latino locksmith (Michael Peña). To her, he looks suspiciously like a “gangbanger.”
According to Crash’s worldview, racism is overcome when individuals like Jean simply stop being racist. She falls down the stairs and hugs her Latina maid, while Matt Dillon’s character — a rapist cop — saves the life of the very biracial woman he sexually assaulted days earlier. The Awl’s Anne Helen Petersen describes these scenes as a “neoliberal shitshow,” and they are. Petersen writes that, in Crash, “there’s certainly no need for systemic change, or consideration of how systemic inequity has perpetuated racism between individuals.”
If Avenue Q and Crash illustrate racism without a system, Zootopia illustrates racism without privilege. In order for racism to exist, there has to be some sort of hierarchy of power, but the film has no pecking order. Both Nick and Judy seem to stand in for the outgroup, despite the fact that they’re on opposite sides of the predator/prey divide. While Assistant Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate) routinely refers to prey as “the little guy,” she also claims predators are just 10 percent of the population. That would suggest they’re on the bottom of the totem pole, but predators also hold the positions of power in Zootopia: Judy’s boss — the city mayor — is a lion. The film’s seeming chain of command never actually agrees with itself.
It doesn’t really work to have a film about the “Other” in which everyone is the “Other.” In Zootopia, predators begin to return to their “savage” beginnings after Bellwether infects them with a drug that makes them go wild. Her plan is to use fear of the outsider to eradicate predators (“Fear always works,” she exclaims). Zootopia’s moral seems to be that society can reach a racial harmony when bad individuals are ousted from power. After Bellwether is caught and removed from her position, we’re to understand that things will more or less go back to normal. In Zootopia, the system is not the problem; it’s the individuals who are the problem.
It’s a lot to ask for a film to explain concepts of privilege and systemic injustice to young kids in a way that won’t have their parents running for the exits. But Zootopia’s message is at best muddled, and at worst it contradicts many of the lessons the film is attempting to impart. In Zootopia, no one really benefits from racism, and everyone is thus harmed by it equally — which is actually a pretty dangerous idea. But Zootopia’s racial parable is so opaque that you can almost read into it anything you like. As film critic Matt Zoller Seitz noted, “I can imagine an anti-racist and a racist coming out of this film, each thinking it validated their sense of how the world works.”
Zootopia has so much it wants to say about diversity and inclusion, and it’s admirable that Disney wants to do better seven decades after they first locked Song of the South away in the vault. But if the studio wants to add anything meaningful to today’s racial climate, more movies with good intentions and poor follow-through won’t be enough. We’ve already got one Crash. In 2016, we deserved something far better than the kids’ version.