In Disney’s new animated feature Zootopia all the animals wear clothes and walk on their hind legs.
That makes the gazelle a particularly tall and lanky creature. A minor character, she’s a pop singer voiced by Shakira; she sports gracefully tapering antlers with a tousled blond mane nesting fetchingly between them; she wears a miniskirt and a spangly red crop top. Yes, the elegant gazelle has been sexualized.
Anthropomorphization is tricky territory although, God knows, Disney has lots of anodyne experience going all the way back to that cheery little mouse who first appeared in Steamboat Willie in 1928.
Still, Zootopia takes the cultural practice of posing animals as human characters to queasy new heights.
Apparently, in the countryside, animals live in their original habitats surrounded by their own species and familiar neighbours: The main character here, a young bunny named Judy Hopps, grew up on a carrot farm with her rabbit parents and a comically large number of siblings.
But in the gleaming city of the title, the beasts of the field, the forest and the savannah, not to mention the Arctic and the desert, live together and at least aspire to harmony in diversity.
Judy, a character cloyingly drawn with Kewpie doll eyes by the animators but firmly voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, aspires to be a police officer and moves to Zootopia, where she is hired onto a force staffed by elephants, wolves and bears under a “mammal inclusion initiative.” In other words, she’s a girl in a man’s world.
The chief (a water buffalo impressively created by Idris Elba) promptly assigns her to parking duty, but she soon breaks out and teams up with a wily fox (an irrepressible performance from Jason Bateman) to find some missing animals and expose a dastardly plot to make Zootopia’s predators revert to the wild and attack their traditional prey.
I don’t imagine environmentalists would approve of a movie that suggests wild animals are at their best when tamed, but it’s the social anxieties behind Zootopia’s message of animal harmony that make me uneasy.
From Aesop’s Fables to Franklin the Turtle, animals have always been used to coach young people on how they should behave. But as Zootopia busily tells the kids not to stereotype different groups and to love everybody, it creates a city in which some creatures fear that others are inherently savage.
That’s a pretty close match for both America’s historic racism and its new Islamophobia.
And, leaving aside amusing jokes about the wolves trying desperately to contain a group howl or sloths working as bureaucrats, animal behaviour is a troubling metaphor for cultural diversity.
After all, preying on smaller or slower creatures is how many real animals eat; wolves are potentially savage and mice can’t really live happily with them.
And how much animal harmony does the sprawling Zootopia team of multiple directors and writers really envisage?
It was only when the sexy gazelle appeared in a final image of the animal kingdom united in song that I noted the very few couples in the film – Judy’s bunny parents and an otter whose husband has gone missing – and began to wonder about the deepening friendship between Judy the female bunny and Nick the male fox. But let’s not go there.
Highly familiar with the pluralist message that Zootopia delivers, the children for whom the film is largely intended are unlikely to be troubled by anything they see here.
Thinking parents, however, may think twice.Report Typo/Error