“One year when I was a teenager, my family had gathered together for a meal. Thanksgiving, maybe? We were talking about some news story where police shot a suspect as he ran from them.
“He must be guilty,” we said, “because you don’t run from the police unless you have something to hide.”
Ignorant, we were, of our privilege. My uncle, an adopted non-white man, spoke up. “I don’t know about that. I have friends who have had run-ins with police just because of what they look like.”
No one had anything to say. What could we say? We, a group of white, middle class people sitting in the living room of a house fully paid for in the nice part of a town that boasted a very, very large majority of white people, had absolutely no idea about what racism really was.
What does this have to do with a children’s movie?
Zootopia is a film about a little bunny named Judy Hopps who dreams of leaving her small town to become a police officer in the big city of Zootopia. The problem is that there has never been a rabbit police officer and the rest of the animal kingdom doesn’t think that there ever will be. Still, she works her tail off (tee hee), rising to the top of her class at the police academy and sent to Zootopia to begin her new life… where she’s immediately put on meter maid duty. However, there is a slew of missing animals and Judy is determined to find out what is happening to these animals with the reluctant help from Nick Wilde, a cynical, wily fox who spends his days buying giant popsicles, melting them down, re-freezing them into smaller popsicles, and selling those refrozen popsicles for a significant profit.
Sounds like a fun children’s movie, right? It is. But that’s not all.
I don’t want to spoil the movie, but I’m going to talk a bit about the message behind the story. The focus here is prejudice. Judy wants to be a police officer, but no one thinks she can do it. Not because she’s not talented, not because she doesn’t have the drive, not because she’s not athletic, but because she’s a rabbit. Nick wants to buy a popsicle, but the rhino serving ice cream refuses (with a sign saying management can refuse anyone they like) to serve him because he’s a fox. Later in the movie, prey animals are turned against predators in a peaceful society because “violence is in their DNA.” It’s a little hard to elaborate on without spoiling the movie. Huh. I didn’t think about that when I decided to write this review.
How about this. I’m going to give you some lines out of context and see if that helps:
- Judy Hopps: [Approaches reception desk where Clawhauser is munching on cereal] Excuse me… Down here… Hi.Clawhauser: O. M. Goodness, they really did hire a bunny. Ho-whop! I gotta tell you, you’re even cuter than I thought you’d be.Judy Hopps: Ooh, ah, you probably didn’t know, but a bunny can call another bunny ‘cute’, but when other animals do it, that’s a little…
Clawhauser: [Mortified] Hoo, I’m so sorry! Me, Benjamin Clawhauser, the guy everyone thinks is just a flabby donut-loving cop stereotyping you.
- “Sir, I’m not just some token bunny.”
Okay there are more, but it’s hard to get the wording right when you saw the movie several hours ago. At one point, Judy points out how articulate Nick is (implying that foxes aren’t generally able to speak “articulately” and whatever they do speak is somehow worth less than what Judy speaks). At another, the villain talks about uniting the 90% of the population against the common enemy that is the 10% because “fear always works” when it comes to getting power. There are a thousand references to racism, sexism, and prejudice in general. Let me tell you, this movie is not subtle.
But that’s the point. We have clearly gone passed the point of subtlety. When Donald Trump can call for a wall on the Mexican border to keep the rapists out to screams of agreement, we know we are passed. When we protest Canada accepting refugees into our country, we are passed. When we don’t investigate the death of a black woman in police custody after getting flagged for a traffic violation, we are passed. When the leader of the opposition party in Alberta jokes about “beating” our female premier, we are passed.
And the movie tried to expose the prejudice in ourselves when we identify with Judy. We feel bad that everyone around her told her she’s not enough just because of what she is. We cheer when she works passed the naysayers and follows her dream. We get angry at her setbacks. And then she shows her inherent prejudices against predator animals, causing backlash to an entire segment of the population based on the actions of a very, very few. Suddenly, the character that we have projected ourselves into has made a mistake that every single one of us has made. And we have to deal with it.
The movie isn’t perfect. Its message gets muddled with its metaphor. Predator animals were once violent creatures, the movie concedes, but now they’re not. Minorities didn’t kill white people and nor do they ignore their “base instincts” to live among white people. And talking about predators “going savage” is using language that has often been used by white people talking about people of colour.
Then there’s Nick. While it seems that every other character in the movie understands that they have prejudices from their upbringings, life experiences, or the media they consume and then works to correct it, Nick stays the same. He gives Judy a diminutive nickname (“carrots”) and talks about her driving skills reflecting on all rabbits, while she respectfully calls him by his name and apologizes for how she acted. The interactions between them remind me very much of the charming rogue who has zero respect for women and the heroine who decides to look passed his flaws and care for him just the same. Ugh. The movie makes every excuse for Nick’s behaviour, just like Judy’s, but condemns her and exonerates him. If she was supposed to be a stand-in for white people and he was the stand-in for non-whites, and if their social problems were based solely on the relationships between the races, I’d understand. But there are definite sexist undertones that the movie tries to condemn, but then forgets about halfway through.
If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, think about a time when a stranger called you “sweetheart” patronizingly while he tells you how to do your job. Ask a lady friend how it feels to be called “baby” by a man who looks her up and down like he wants to consume her. Nick talks to Judy in a similar way, but never changes. He doesn’t have to confront his own prejudices, which diminishes the whole message of the movie.
The message is a hard one to talk about. It makes us confront a part of ourselves that we don’t like, a part of ourselves that we don’t want to take responsibility for. We moan and groan about political correctness so that we don’t have to change our problematic behaviour. But it’s something that most of us don’t know we have inside of us. Not until someone tells us. For me, it was my uncle. And I hope this movie will tell others. I hope that it helps children confront their own prejudices early so that they don’t grow up believing that people can be “other.”
I did enjoy this movie even though the message wasn’t entirely presented in the way that I’d have liked. I laughed quite a bit and I was in awe of the animation (seriously, the bunny fur is beautiful). I loved the little Easter Eggs that were hidden in the movie (like Kristen Bell playing a sloth, which she famously loves [if you haven’t seen “Kristen Bell Sloth Meltdown” you need to click that link]). The movie stayed away from the sexual innuendos that are rampant in our children’s movies and opted instead for references and innocent humor. I definitely recommend that you see it and take your children with you (though the five year old girl sitting next to me had to sit on her dad’s lap because one part got too scary for her). This is what you will look like when you watch it: