The Best Films of the Decade: #27. Zootopia (2016)

| December 15, 2019
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In just 16 Days the decade will come to a close and so for movie lovers like me it is an opportunity to look over the decade of movies that are left behind. Over the next few weeks I am going to count down the best films of the past 10 years from #40 to #1. My choices are personal choices swayed by nothing but the love I have for this medium. These are all great movies. These films all achieved something great. All reached for something special. They are the best of the decade . . .

Image result for Zootopia screenshot

When I wrote my review of Zootopia back in 2016, I liked it but I complained that it leaned far too much on political correctness.  I felt as if it was trying too hard to be timely.  Well, time makes fools of us all because here we are three years later and the film has a message that seems far more prescient then it was then. Let’s put it this way; at a moment in hour history when racial hate crimes are up and people are being murdered, the message of this movie couldn’t be more timely.

Outwardly, you don’t expect much. The outlying story is Zootopia is standard Disney patter: A bunny named Judy Hopps grows up all her life with dreams of becoming the first rabbit to be a big city cop.  The underlying story is not only all-too-current but far more adult then it might at first appear – or even that it seemed three years ago.  This is a film about racial tensions within an environment made up of anthropomorphic animals (there are no humans present) who have formed a human-like society complete with a similar state of democracy.  Yet, there are also two class factions: The prey and the predator.  The prey fear the predator by nature, and not by action.

The social structure of Zootopia is crippled by these social blinders seen through a society of animals that are labeled savages and killers.  What is interesting is that of the laws and the democratic structure here, prey is protected and are also a majority.  The city is made up of 10% predator and 90% prey.  The majority – the prey – are protected under laws and social institutions, while the minorities – the predators – are labeled as savage killers ready to strike.  They are portrayed within the culture as something unpredictable, something to be feared.  This structure is a very thin allegory of the social outlook of young African-American males, of young men who are marginalized by a trending outlook from the society at-large as violent and unpredictable.

These fears are bred from self-inflicted separation, a refusal to mix with species that they do not know.  This can be seen in the ways in which businesses turn away certain types of workers and customers.  Note the bold statement made when the fox Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman) goes in to buy a popsicle at an establishment clearly designed to serve elephants.  The angry proprietor (voiced by John DiMaggio) informs him that “We reserve the right to refuse service to ANYONE!” 

One could see this as a reflection of the days in which blacks were refused service at a lunch counter.  Or currently one could see this as a reflection of the controversy over cake decorators who refuse service to gay couples based allegedly on religious grounds.  Is it right?  The movie is very clever at leaving both sides open for debate.  Nick walks into an open establishment and asks to be served from a place that serves large mammals.  The proprietor’s excuse is that Nick should look for an establishment that serves foxes.  Who is right here?  The movie sort of leaves the issue open for debate.  Nick is in an establishment that isn’t designed to cater to him, but there are no laws that forbid him from trying to patronize the place.  The owner doesn’t want to serve him because he is clearly outside of the normal size dimensions (and species, read: race) for anyone who traditionally frequents the place.  In this, he has the right to refuse service to him but doesn’t have a solid legal reason.  Should Nick understand that this is a place that is outside of his dimensions?  Probably, but should that stop him from asking.  You can debate it for yourself.

This is some pretty heavy stuff particularly for a kid’s film, and the ways and means in which the movie delivers it is clever enough that you never feel like  you’re being steamrolled by it.  This is, at heart, a light and lively kid’s film but it delivers these messages as a means of getting parents to discuss them with their children.  These are current topics, relevant topics, real topics.  Zootopia is steeped in important messages about the dangers of first-glance reactions.  It says that it is important to look past prejudice and stereotype, to look a little closer at someone that they are traditionally encouraged to fear and or dismiss, to see the person underneath and not just the race, the age, the class, the sexual orientation or the social background.  These are issues that will never go away.  They make the film deep and discussion-worthy.  Zootopia is wise, wonderful and, by nature of its issues, also very current.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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