When I ask if there’s a “dark side” to Zootopia, I do not specifically mean if Zootopia’s hidden “demo” – the furry fandom – is too risque a market to have a passing interest towards. I suppose to a certain extent it is a valid concern – not necessarily because of the adult content which fandom is known for (both correctly and incorrectly), but because of the Disney name, and the nature of the company need to control its message and brand. Disney would indeed not want to be tied to any seedy elements of any fandom, but that goes for Star Wars, Marvel, and its Princess properties. This isn’t a company lavishly heaping praise on fan fiction sites and potential “ships.” When I ask if there’s a dark side to Zootopia, I wonder to what extent its “headier” topic, which is centered around social assumptions and the nature of stereotypes, should be discussed. It’s obvious that the film has a very strong message when it comes to racial/cultural differences, in which a society of animals struggle through species-related prejudices. The question is if the movie truly does that idea justice, and if that idea is worth discussion in a real, meaningful context – or if it’s “just a cartoon” and not worthy of that kind of discussion at all.
In a bizarre way, that argument is more “dangerous” than any sexualization of talking animals. The realm of “geekery,” a realm that has always demanded respect and validation, has developed an overt hostility and aggressiveness towards those who read too much into it. Specifically, the hostility is aimed at racial/sexual politics and discussion. One can look to the infamous “gamergate” and see how that kind of hostility can manifest itself into something ugly and uncontrollable, something that has legitimately instilled fear into anyone who dare utter its name. Deep, thorough readings into Zootopia could instill a similar hostility into its fanbase; rumor has it that there were plenty of complaints against the one sole reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes that gave it a bad rating.
Zootopia is the rare animated film to take a hard, close look at its characters: its species and its relationships and its reputations among predators and prey and ask how would these characters truly live among each other. There is a real fear that reviewers and viewers may look too much into its notable differences and try to tie them to real world races and cultural groups. (This is doable, but requires a deeper, more open-minded approach than applying a one-to-one allegory between a race and a species, which goes beyond the scope of this piece.) This, in turn, could muddle the message, making it seem like its being both progressive and stereotypical at the same time: Matt Zoller Seitz suggested as much during his review of the film.
This is kind of a big deal. 2015-2016 has been a notable year for how powerful the call for more diversity is – diversity that is complex, complicated, and multi-faceted. Scenarios like the “Oscars So White” protest and the backlash to the Ghostbusters trailer has made diversity – true diversity – an issue that has made the internet rabid. In a way, Zootopia has a small advantage in that it substitutes talking animals for people of any race, but that has the potential to complicate things further. Is the animal construct just a way to avoid really exploring the issue of “real” diversity – an issue that demands not only more diverse faces in front of the camera, but behind the scenes as well? With all due respect to the creators and animators on the film, this doesn’t seem like a movie that has a large crew of people of color.
Disney, to its credit (and as I have mentioned before) seems to be aware, at least tangentially, of this concern. The marketing for the film has been broad enough to reach across gender and racial lines, as as more and more reviews filter in, it’s clear that the film has enough cache to make people assuage their fears (somewhat). Tomorrow, I’ll be delving deeper into the film for a full on review, but as of right now it seems to both present a clear lesson about the importance of working together, but also present the small, minute ways in which biases and stereotypes can both harm and heal – specifically if those stereotypes are not stereotypes per se, but general (and specific) cultural understandings (and misunderstandings) of the various species in question. It’s deeply silly to think about, and it’s deeply silly to write about, but the film strikes the perfect tone that feels palpable to young children and discerning adults, while at the same time making it clear its criticisms of our response to social justice and racial/cultural tensions.
It’s a tough road to balance, and in the end, all this film needs to do is be entertaining – but that’s essentially what all films need to do (well, most films). Zootopia presents a deeply messy and complex world, in which stereotypes, prejudices, assumptions and deep-seeded beliefs shape the world, and that broad “diversity” perspectives and initiatives, while meaningful, still butt up against the various ways people, at the individual level, commit to their biases. This is a film that presents how those biases manifest – from questionable science to awkward confrontations to disingenuous victim support to even “microaggressions”. Such ideas aren’t looked up fondly these days, especially in a social reality that push back against so-called “social justice warriors” and “over-sensitivity” and “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” all of which have been grossly misunderstood, but intentionally and unintentionally. Discussing how the film handles all those elements is worthy of discussion in my opinion, but there’s a sect of those who wildly disagree, and they may be more hostile than any group of people whose affections for the anthropomorphic animal concept are discomforting. And worse might be those who do see those elements and grow hostile at what they perceive is a slight against their occupation or personage – which would be the most ironic thing the film could do.