Zootopia, che cozz?

Mr_big When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: institutional racism and crude Italian-American stereotypes.

I had gone to see Zootopia with my kids. B/B+. Pretty cute, but not Disney’s best. It’s mildly funny, in usual kid picture way – some jokes for the kids (a sloth caught speeding), some meant to be lobbed over their heads at the parents (Breaking Bad references). My kids loved it, but for God’s sake, despite hearing all relevant aesthetic arguments they still love Garfield the Movie, so no one should ever take their opinion as any reflection of a movie’s merit.

HOWEVER. I am here neither to sing its praises nor bemoan its shortcomings qua entertainment. I am here to write of its morality. It means to be taken very seriously as a message to the audience of the evils institutional racism. Not as self-serious as Crash, but maybe only a few frames shy.

Briefly, in the city of Zootopia, all animals have shed their species’ genetic destiny to become the animal they wish to be. We follow bunny protagonist, Judy Hopps, as she defies expectations that she farm. She becomes the first bunny cop. Both explicitly and implicitly, though, the characters clearly have not shed their beliefs that anatomy is destiny – exhibiting their damaging prejudices against other species and groups of species (e.g., foxes are seen as sly, prey distrust predators).

It’s a much more clever and subtle message movie than Crash, actually. (Not that that’s difficult. And not that any movie, even children’s movies, need be a message movie.) It has a very nuanced understanding of the ways bias keeps an animal down in the world. The species do not, with one glaring exception which will be discussed below, strictly correspond to any one human ethnic group or race. There are, though, moments, experienced by the animals that recall human biases – one animal is complimented for being “articulate.”

Enter the arctic shrews. In this insightful movie about racism and bias, the filmmakers suddenly saw fit to pull out EVERY SINGLE ITALIAN-AMERICAN STEREOTYPE POSSIBLE. And unlike any other species in the movie that I can recall, these are the only species that are correlated to a specific ethnic group. Not played for any understanding whatsoever of course. Just for laffs!

Big hair with tons of product? Check. Murderous mafia criminality? Check. Over-sentimentality about family? Check. Charming moral ambiguity? Check. Criminal but doting father and willfully oblivious daughter? Check. Rat pack (ha) music? Check. Penchant for cannoli? Check. Not heavily burdened with intellect? Check. A boss with subordinates bound by loyalty ahead of any other virtue? Check.

Mr. Big, you see, is supposed to be Don Corleone. Which is funny, or something. You know, for kids!

I felt bad and somewhat guilty, leaving the movie theater. My kids are half-Jewish, half-Italian. (I contribute the Jewish.) My oldest is aware of the Holocaust in general terms, and has been teased with a few anti-Semitic comments. He overheard my husband and I talking to each other about how off-putting we found those scenes. Until that moment, as far as I know, he had never known that his half-Italian-ness was something anyone would mock.

His slump down and glance away from us is something that all the careful parental talks afterward can never erase from my heart. Thank you for raising awareness, Zootopia.


Elizabeth Picciuto

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. Could it be that Italians have, at least comparatively, been subject to less oppression as a result of their ethnicity than other groups, Jewish people in particular? And thus it seems less harmful to send up their stereotypes?

    And was that a shockingly ignorant thing to say? Is there more of a history of oppression than I am aware?

  2. The Italian shrew bit was strange. I get the plot device of a small crime boss called Mr. Big, but the Italian Mafioso aspect fell flat, and of course, my son didn’t get it, so the humor was aimed at me.

    Oh well, enjoyed the movie otherwise.

  3. “It’s a much more clever and subtle message movie than Crash, actually.”

    This is a superfluous statement. It is a conceptual impossibility for any movie anywhere to deliver a message with less subtlety and cleverness than Crash.

  4. Confession: I loved this movie, more than I’ve loved an animated film in a long time. (Toy Story II, maybe?)

    Anyway, I took it specifically as a parody of The Godfather, which had very little to do with the reality of Italians or even Italian gangsters until the Mafia adopted it as a welcome bit of mythology and began to copy it. (E.g. Coppola invented the term Godfather as a Mafioso term of respect, and now it’s in general use. (Oddly, LeCarre did the same with “mole” to mean highly-placed double agent.) ) So when some shrews make a weasel an offer he can’t refuse (i.e. money), to me it’s referring to a film stereotype, not an ethnic one.

  5. Italian here, born and raised, writing directly from the Motherland (20 km from Milan)…that was a movie reference and nothing more. Plus, mafia stereotypes itself and is in NO WAY a representation of Italy so there’s no point in feeling offended, ’cause they mocked a criminal organization that has killed mercilessly and still keeps south Italy from really prospering, not the whole italian population.

  6. Thank you for an insightful article about the stereotyping of an ethnic group that is still considered
    by many to be acceptable. What disturbed me most was that this film was suppose to be about racial tolerance. Just because a group didn’t experience the same discrimination as others or faced it years ago does not make the disparagement okay. Btw, I am of Italian and Irish American background. I’ve experienced very little negativity re my Irish background. Since my last name is not blatantly ethnic, I pass. Many times people have said negative things about italians to me not knowing my ethnicity. When I’ve informed them, instead of apologizing these people get very defensive and begin lecturing me. Some even think they are complimenting me by saying that I’m not like “them”. I’ve lost friendships when I refused to agree with their ignorant opinions. My own sister in law rejected and has mistreated myself and my now late mom using the excuse that we are ignorant italians. I really believe that the media is responsible. If the entertainment industry can be sensitive to other groups, why do they not extend that same respect to an ethnic group that has contributed just as much as any other group?

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