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.