The type of stories we tell our children are important. No one, regardless of his or her politics or religious convictions, disputes this. Cultures and corresponding taboos may change, and post-modern intellectual claptrap promoting moral relativism and political correctness may seep into our collective consciousness, but most people, at most times, want to find a balance between entertainment and ethical instruction when it comes to the pop culture their kids consume.
Like many recent animated films marketed to children, Disney’s latest effort, Zootopia, contains more than its fair share of socio-political commentary.
With a near-perfect Rotten Tomatoes rating, Zootopia is enjoying both critical and box-office success since it opened last week. The movie follows the exploits of an ambitious young rabbit—Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin)—whose goal in life is to become the first female bunny police officer and make a name for herself as a detective. Placed on parking ticket patrol, Hopps teams up with a fast-talking, con-artist fox (voiced by Jason Bateman) to solve a “missing animals” mystery that has been plaguing their fair city. Hilarity and hijinks ensue.
Zootopia is a good movie. It deserves the overwhelmingly positive reviews it has received. There are plenty of laughs and many poignant moments; Ginnifer Goodwin is charming as Judy and Jason Bateman is incredibly entertaining, even as an anthropomorphized fox. It is not a stretch to posit that the people who brought you Frozen know a thing or two about connecting with young audiences.
But when it comes to the politics of Zootopia—a magical land considered a “utopia” because there are no humans in it—you’re going to need a stronger word than “heavy-handed.”
I know that this is a movie intended primarily for grade-schoolers, and to be fair, there are positive lessons throughout the film. But it was difficult to avoid the feeling that Zootopia was trying way too hard to be politically correct. Every third film these days—animated or otherwise—is about a female character who isn’t taken seriously (or worse) by male characters who prove to be her intellectual and/or moral inferior. Yes, young girls should be raised to believe that they can achieve their dreams, but Hollywood’s relentless insistence that females must want to do everything men do (and are better than men) is growing wearisome.
As well, teaching young girls that men will always “have it out for them” is misguided. Not every male boss thinks his female employees are dolts. And not every male boss is a dolt himself. It’s lazy storytelling and encourages female prejudices against men. Even the movie’s humorous takedown of the Department of Motor Vehicles bureaucracy—DMV employees are molasses-slow sloths—goes on too long.
I probably would not have made such a fuss about the film’s messaging had I not made the mistake of reading this article in the Los Angeles Times about the process that Zootopia’s writers utilized in crafting their narrative and developing their characters:
The filmmakers brought in an array of experts as they designed the world, from zoologists, who advised on how each species should move, to specialists on the Americans With Disabilities Act, who helped construct a city where a 2-inch character and a 27-foot character could coexist, to HVAC system designers, who puzzled over how to build a tundra neighborhood next to a desert one.
Female police officers spoke with the filmmakers about challenges they faced—including having trouble finding male officers willing to partner with them. In the case of Judy Hopps, who also faces difficulty being taken seriously as a police officer, animators used small scale to dramatize her struggle, as she struggled to hop up on a chair in the police department.
You do not need to be a graduate of USC film school to understand that a serious screenwriter and producers will do their due diligence in researching a project. But when “specialists on the Americans With Disabilities Act” are being called into a creative meetings at Disney, we’re all in trouble.
Why were no male police officers brought in to share their thoughts on what it’s like to work with or for a female counterpart? And why are no films for children ever positively reviewed by the likes of the Los Angeles Times with comments such as, “The compelling depiction of a strong, dependable father figure at the heart of this story was a breath of fresh air.”
Battering young kids over the head with the idea that tolerance is the unquestionable “end”—instead of an extremely helpful “means”—to a better world does not a classic moral tale make. Zootopia is fun and there is much to like about it, but if this is the best story our culture has to offer our kids, we’re all going to be eaten by wolves.