“Zootopia” is a surprisingly deft take on modern race relations for a children’s animated film. Between this and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”, Disney in 2016 really surprised me with pushing beyond their usual envelope.
The animation, voice acting, and music are all what you’d expect from Disney, top-of-the-line stuff, but the writing really is the interesting thing here. The movie is anything but subtle, and it’s surprising how heads-on it tackles racial issues. The first half or so of the movie does it mainly through witty dialogue (equating “bunny” with a racial slur, referencing the protagonist as a “diversity hire”, and so on), but as it develops, the anthropomorphic animal racial stereotypes become less clearly defined, and the movie takes a more cerebral approach to institutional racism.
The third act of the film is basically an extended riff on the crack epidemic; particularly the view that the CIA introduced (or deliberately turned a blind eye to the introduction of) crack cocaine into black communities in the USA in the 80s and 90s, the version in the film being for social purposes. I never expected a Disney movie to tackle that topic, and I was thrilled to be surprised by Disney.
The film revolves around tackling racism in all its complexity, examining its institutional nature rather than just following a black-and-white morality tale like most Disney movies do. The very hero of the film is a woeful offender of the “but I have a black friend!” style racism. The film doesn’t conclude on some vague “everyone should be treated the same!” moral to handwave away the complexities of racism. If anything, it derides that ultra-sanitised racial view. Instead, it warns against how easily racial conflict can be manufactured and puppeteered by elites, and how acceptance and understanding of others is preferable to homogenisation and sterile, inoffensive, hollow platitudes.
Another happy surprise from Disney. I give it four carrots, and a jumbo pop.