[Note: This post contains major spoilers. It expands upon my original review of Zootopia, which appeared at St. Louis Magazine on March 3, 2016.]
A simple fact needs to be cleared up straightaway: Zootopia is not an allegory. One could be forgiven for mistaking Walt Disney Animation Studio’s 55th feature for a thickly metaphorical story, assuming that error was based solely on the film’s reviews. Many of the feature's critiques—both positive and negative in their overall assessment—heedlessly throw around the words “allegory” and “allegorical." Indeed, quite a few reviews have grumbled that the film’s symbolism is of a particularly sloppy sort. Devin Faracai at Birth Movies Death echoes several other critics when he objects that “the muddled metaphors that permeate Zootopia can leave much open to interpretation.”
The glaring weakness of such criticisms is that they are premised on a faulty assumption: namely, that Zootopia is a strongly symbolic work. If one goes looking for tidy metaphor in a film that doesn’t traffic in such devices in a meaningful way, one will inevitably come up short. It’s a bit astonishing to this writer that any viewer could experience Zootopia’s 108 minutes and walk away with the impression that the film is neatly symbolic of anything. Perhaps it’s just that junior high memories of Animal Farm—with its one-to-one allegorical mapping of real world Russian revolutionary and Stalinist figures onto the novella’s talking barnyard creatures—still prompt some filmgoers to assume that anthropomorphic beasts must symbolize something whenever they rear their furry heads.
In a limited sense, Zootopia could be regarded as a cousin to one of Aesop’s celebrated fables, in that it is a moralistic story featuring animal characters. However, Disney’s film is as dramatically and thematically sophisticated as those archaic folk tales are ruthlessly terse. The dazzling world-building that undergirds the film is a substantial clue that Zootopia has aims beyond illustrating pithy adages about prejudice. The story of earnest rabbit police officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is foremost a fantasy story. While it might contain echoes of the real world—in both its tangible details and its portrayal of social dynamics— the universe of Zootopia is a self-contained reality. It is, in fact, a dizzyingly ambitious work of speculative fiction, one that imagines how an inter-species mammalian culture might function, and in particularly how it might manifest human sociological phenomena in novel ways.
At the story level, Zootopia is predominantly a buddy picture in the spirit of odd couple action comedies like 48 Hrs. Judy and fox con artist Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) are grudgingly partnered to solve a ticking-clock mystery in the titular animal megalopolis. However, the film also contains familiar elements drawn from noir detective fiction, as well as from numerous paranoid political thrillers in the vein of The Manchurian Candidate, The Parallax View, and Three Days of the Condor. The structure of Zootopia follows a well-worn scheme, with Judy’s path mimicking that of countless heroes who have sought out the truth in the Big City. She begins investigating a relatively small scale crime—in this case, the disappearance of devoted family mustelid Emmitt Otterton—only to gradually uncover a more disturbing and wide-ranging conspiracy. Judy regrettably draws erroneous conclusions from this discovery, setting her up for disenchantment, epiphany, and an eventual third act triumph over the Real Bad Guys.
Clearly, striking originality is not a primary virtue of Zootopia’s plot, although the film does a bang-up job of knitting together the action, comedy, and mystery aspects of its story with minimal obvious seams. Ultimately, however, the screenplay—credited to Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, with story assists from a regiment of writers—isn’t especially preoccupied with luxuriating in genre tropes. The film’s employment of, for example, cop movie clichés is more utilitarian than affectionate. (Which isn’t to say that Zootopia lacks joyful enthusiasm; it concludes with an animal dance party, after all.) The film is rather unabashed about dusting off trite plot developments, such as a scene where cape buffalo police commander Chief Bogo (Ildris Elba) demands Judy’s badge in response to her loose cannon rule-bending. Yet such comforting generic signposts are crucial, not only because Zootopia’s setting is so outlandish, but also because the film is fundamentally more of a character drama than an urban mystery. The inner journey of Judy—and to a lesser extent that of her nemesis-cum-ally Nick—is what makes the film crackle so gratifyingly. The trope-cluttered plot just a reliable substrate for Zootopia’s surprisingly deft exploration of sticky relationships and cultural brier patches.
That Judy is a compelling, entertaining heroine is overwhelmingly attributable to Goodwin’s expressive, pitch-perfect performance. Judy’s bubbly energy and unflappable, 110% approach to life could easily have become grating, but Goodwin nimbly balances the character’s infectious earnestness with traces of self-doubt and glum fatalism. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Judy is arguably the most appealingly designed character in a film that has its fair share of striking creatures. Designed by Byron Howard and Cory Loftis, she is wholly a rabbit—even her bipedal running somehow suggests a lagomorph’s gallop—and yet ever-so-slightly coded as female via human signifiers, right down to the swoop of her hip line. (There are no Minnie Mouse eyelashes or parasol skirts here; Judy wears pointedly unisex clothing.)
Sweep away the confidence games and criminal conspiracies that characterize Zootopia’s surface plot and a more delicate story emerges, one concerned with Judy’s passage through a succession of outlooks. This journey is partly about her perceptions of own abilities and behavior, but also about her stance towards the multi-species society that surrounds her. The film’s prologue illustrates that Judy has always been a bunny with an itch for bigger things. Although born into an enormous clan of carrot farmers in the sleepy, majority-rabbit hamlet of Bunnyburrow, she has longed to become a police officer since childhood. However, her ambition is not merely to serve as some country sheriff in her hometown, but to join the elite ranks of the police force that serves and protects the super-city of Zootopia.
The excitement and relative prestige of urban policing play a role this yearning, but Judy is also plainly a true believer in the idea of a diverse, equitable mammalian society. Much to the chagrin of her parents, she actually internalized her middle school lessons about the virtues of a liberalized, inter-species world. Judy’s outspoken belief in the shining ideals of Zootopia is rather embarrassing to the other inhabitants of Bunnyburrow. Children are obliged to repeat the platitudes of mammalian equality, and even to stage precious little plays advocating those principles, but to actually believe wholeheartedly in them (especially as an adult) is regarded as gauche and a little naïve.
Judy might have been sired in Bunnyburrow, but her heart has always belonged to Zootopia, and to the more liberalized outlook that its citizens ostensibly embody. Judy’s wide-eyed train ride to the city—accompanied by the bouncy vocalizations and heartening lyrics of Shakira’s “Try Everything”—is thus less of a journey into foreign territory and more of a spiritual homecoming. Judy exemplifies the unlikely progressive prodigal who originally hails from a small, conservative town. She believes that the Big City not only promises cultural vibrancy and opportunity, but also nurtures values that are more in line with her own.
This expectation is not unjustified. The political divide between America's liberal urban centers and conservative rural areas is well-documented and has only sharpened over time. As Josh Korn described in an Atlantic piece following President Obama’s 2012 re-election:
[V]irtually every major city (100,000-plus population) in the United States of America has a different outlook from the less populous areas that are closest to it. The difference is no longer about where people live, it's about how people live: in spread-out, open, low-density privacy—or amid rough-and-tumble, in-your-face population density and diverse communities that enforce a lower-common denominator of tolerance among inhabitants.
Crucially, it is not so much that the accretion of liberal citizens renders cities more liberal, the immigration of progressive country folk like Judy notwithstanding. The causal relationship appears to flow the other way: Living in diverse, cosmopolitan communities tends to make people more tolerant. Astonishingly, the effect can be observed even at the neighborhood and street levels. The more integrated an area is, the less prejudiced its citizens become over time, an effect of the “passive tolerance” that results from countless small daily observations and interactions.
Zootopia projects this dynamic onto its fictional mammalian setting, while also reinforcing the relative attractiveness of urban life through the spectacular design of its city environs. Certainly, it’s hard not to share Judy’s elation at the sight of Zootopia’s gleaming high-rises, wondrous transit, and bustling street life. Initially, even the supposedly miserable realities of urban living—the cramped one-room apartment with noisy neighbors, for example—don’t phase Judy’s enthusiasm. She’s living her dream, and that’s all that matters. However, it doesn’t take long for the paradoxical isolation of the Big City to take its toll on her disposition. This is only exacerbated by the condescending treatment she receives from Chief Bogo and other ZPD personnel, not to mention her encounters with various cynical and prejudicial behaviors that puncture her positive assumptions about city folk.
While she experiences a few instances of overt inter-species bigotry—most notably in her own workplace—much of her disillusionment stems from her early run-ins with Nick Wilde. The fox is practically her mirror image: a venal realist and petty grifter who is not above exploiting do-gooder liberalism for his own mercenary ends. As the viewer eventually learns, Nick wasn’t always so ruthlessly contemptuous of multi-cultural kumbayas, having had his inclusive illusions shattered as a youth by a pack of fox-loathing herbivorous bullies. (This, of course, inverts a prelude sequence in which little Judy is terrorized and wounded by a local fox for daring to stand up his harassing behavior.) Nick’s cynicism has only hardened since this formative incident, and he has resolved to be the backstabbing sneak-thief that other species often assume him to be.
It is not merely Nick’s smugly contemptuous attitude that undermines Judy’s beliefs, however, but his penchant for tweaking her earnest liberalism. The pair’s visit to the sloth-staffed Department of Motor Vehicles to follow up on a clue makes for an amusing extended gag, but it also serves as a way for Nick to wheedle Judy for her guileless principles. “Are you saying that because he’s a sloth, he can’t be fast?,” Nick sarcastically chides, even as the DMV bureaucrats staple and stamp application forms at a maddeningly glacial pace. Zootopia’s multi-species society must necessarily contend with the realities of vastly different sizes, shapes, strengths, speeds, and abilities among its populace. Bromides about mammalian equality aside, the physical differences between, say, a lemming and a rhinoceros have practical consequences. This is a fact that Chief Bogo underlines as he attempts to convince Judy that her exile to parking ticket duty is nothing personal: “It’s not about how badly you want something, it’s about what you are capable of.”
This highlights the refreshing sophistication of Zootopia’s ethos, and its refusal to fit snugly within a tidy metaphorical box. Like its Disney Animation predecessors The Princess and the Frog, Frozen, and Big Hero 6, the film labors modestly but diligently to chip away at some of the more spurious cultural canards that Disney itself has spent decades constructing. (Bogo again: “Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true!”) Early in the film, Judy’s own parents (Don Lake and Bonnie Hunt) offer what is perhaps the bluntest indictment of the traditional Disney worldview. Sometimes, they caution, one can yearn for something desperately and work for it relentlessly… and still fail. Notably, their warning is not disproved by anything that unfolds later in the film. Judy’s closing voiceover even reiterates the sentiment: “Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes.” For an animated feature from the House of Mouse to present such down-to-earth truisms would have been unthinkable two decades ago.
The optimistic but guarded realism of the film’s moral universe is also mirrored in Zootopia's relatively positive but balanced stance regarding the virtues of urbanism. While the film ultimately portrays diverse, high-density living as a vital source of tolerance, empathy, and cultural enrichment, the depiction allows for ambiguity. Like any major city, Zootopia is shown as troubled by crime, decay, and economic disparities. Moreover, the metropolis is not presented as some paradise that is free from specist stereotypes and resentments. The uglier side of the city is illustrated by incidents such as Nick’s rough treatment in a de facto elephant-only ice cream parlor. (They don’t specifically ban foxes, of course; they just reserve the right to refuse service to anyone, and they just happen to refuse Nick.) Conversely, the film is generous towards its rural characters: It is amiable pie vendor and former bully Gideon Grey (Phill Johnston) who inadvertently provides the folk knowledge that re-opens Judy’s case.
Indeed, Assistant Mayor Bellweather’s (Jenny Slate) scheme to seize power is based on exploiting latent urban myths regarding the inherent savagery of predator species. Her master plan to poison the carnivorous citizens of Zootopia and thereby unleash their murderous “baser” selves merely adds malicious intent to a scenario that is eerily reminiscent of the real world saga of lead and urban crimes rates. As Kevin Drum documented in a seminal Mother Jones piece, the uptick in crime in the latter half of the 20th century appears to have been linked directly to childhood lead exposure. Kids poisoned by lead-containing gasoline and paint grew up to be adolescents and adults with serious impulse-control and aggression problems. Of course, by the time this connection was discovered, right-wing demagogues had long been blaming rising crime on the allegedly violent tendencies of urban black Americans in particular. (Even as early as 1965, conservative intellectuals preferred to attribute spiking crime to a supposed "pathology" in black culture, rather that risk flirting with outright scientific racism. Hence the popularity of the notorious Moynihan Report, which discovered a pseudo-respectable way to blame black single mothers for the crime in their neighborhoods.)
However, it bears repeating that Zootopia doesn’t present its plot and setting particulars as decisively metaphorical. The film’s story, gags, and visual design are too dependent on the fascinating peculiarities of its animal universe; there is not much daylight for allegory. Unlike real world humans, Zootopia's citizens must contend with sharp, undeniable differences in genetics and morphology. It's hardly specist to observe that all cheetahs are faster than all koalas, or that all giraffes are taller than all woodchucks. The film’s predator species did in fact originally evolve to stalk and devour prey species, and Zootopia is partly a thought experiment on how a multi-mammalian community could acknowledge that biological reality and still go about its daily routine with lions and gazelles texting side-by-side.
If anything, the remove provided by the film’s generously developed setting allows Zootopia to explore the broad phenomena surrounding prejudice without reference to any real world tribes. Far from sanitizing and neutering the subject, the film’s approach permits it to emphasize the absurd, insidious, and profoundly personal effects of bigotry. The absence of clear-cut real world metaphors—Are the predators or the prey supposed to symbolize racial minorities?—is a feature, not a bug. It allows the viewer to potentially see traces of themselves in any character at any moment, and thereby broadens the film’s empathetic reach.
Indeed, some of the film’s most memorable jokes involve reconfiguring familiar dynamics regarding race, sex, gender, and so forth in offbeat, amusing ways. Witness Judy’s hasty assumption that only the largest, most fearsome polar bear in the room could be notorious Tundratown crime boss Mr. Big. (The gangland godfather is actually an arctic shrew.) Or her gently reproachful clarification that “cute” is a reclaimed pejorative that rabbits use in reference to one another, but which no other species should utter. Or her admonishment to Nick that touching a sheep’s wool without their permission is entitled and intrusive, no matter how curious one might be about its texture.
Even more impressive is the way that the film slyly utilizes its story to reveal the myriad ways that bigotry manifests on a daily basis. At the personal level, for example, Judy and Nick’s falling out is exacerbated when she first thoughtlessly proclaims an ugly stereotype, then condescendingly reassures Nick that he isn’t like “those other” foxes. When she later return to Zootopia to offer Nick a sobbing mea culpa, it’s as genuine and heartfelt as any human reconciliation following an episode of obtuse tactlessness. Institutional bigotry is scrutinized as well. In one of the most closely observed moments in the film, Nick leaps to Judy’s defense by skewering the ZPD’s biased treatment of its “token bunny.” He points out the injustice of saddling Judy with a challenging task, inferior resources, and arbitrary time limit, and then using her inevitable failure as proof of her species’ inadequacy.
Zootopia is dense with these sort of remarkable exchanges: broadly familiar dramatic scenarios, metamorphosed cleverly for the film’s inimitable animal world. To regard this marvelous intersection of theoretical sociology and fantasy storytelling as clumsy allegory is a regrettable misreading of the film. Moreover, it prompts one to overlook the intelligence and wit of the film’s writing, acting, and design, which cohere superbly into one of the most stimulating works of studio feature animation in years.