A Review of Zootopia by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Three Reels
Zootopia has everything a great animated film could wish for: witty writing, amazing landscapes, multi-faced characters, and a positive message perfectly suited for youngsters. Yet despite these advantages, there is a pervasive aroma of dishonesty and hollowness for 21 st century America has long given into the message of tolerance, and Zootopia offers little to challenge or nuance this worldview. These are not its own faults but the world it seeks to influence. Perhaps in a different time and place, it would not be so easy to smile, shake one’s head, and walk away.
Jennifer Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a small town rabbit with big dreams of being a cop in the thriving metropolis of Zootopia. Years ago, the ancient world was divided by predator and prey, but now everyone – from lemmings to foxes, lambs to tigers – lives in peace. Yet, racism...err...speciesism still dominates their culture, and Hopps is keenly sensitive to the fact that she is the first “prey” on the force. Under the thump of the town’s “inclusion program,” the police chief reluctantly gives Hopps forty- eight hours to solve a missing person case, but her unlikely partner in the pursuit of justice is a street smart fox named Nick Wilde. Through the course of the investigation, Hopps’ expectations and prejudices are challenged again and again, proving the sins one hates most are usually found within.
The first lesson taught by Zootopia’s school of progressivism has been so overused it seems hardly necessary to waste screen time on its banality: you can “be anything you want to be” – a sentiment constantly echoed by the film’s insufferable theme song. Hopps parents are unsupportive of her goals, encouraging her to “settle hard.” She is also teased by her classmates, including a rather violent encounter with the local bully – a redneck fox. Yet this is a Disney movie, so Hopps’ dreams are only a montage away. Fortunately, Hopps overcomes her natural restrictions through hard work and intelligence rather than affirmative action or luck.
Yet life is more complicated than Hopps would like to think. While Zootopia believes it has moved past animals’ primitive instincts, many attitudes of the past remain. While representing only 10% of the population, predators dominate almost all positions of leadership and authority. This leads to plenty of humor, some great, some gut wrenching. Early on, Nick makes the mistake of calling Hopps “cute.” “C*** is something bunnies can call each other, but it’s not okay when other animals say it,” she insists. Yikes. Yet Hopps is not immune and carries around “fox repellant,” a fact that does not go unnoticed by Nick.
Zootopia is very easy to like. It says all the “right” things about prejudice and empathy with great wit and beautiful animation. Yet where it largely succeeds in addressing the issue of race, it falsely assumes that this kind of thinking can be universally applied to all areas. It stokes the fire that is already a raging inferno. Hollywood and secular society has long accepted its inclusive message to the exclusion of any meaningful conversation on natural law, religious violence, or free speech. “It’s just biology – they can’t help it,” one of the villains remarks about predators. Thus, racial intolerance is easily transferred to LGBT intolerance. At one moment, Hopps even affirms a child Fennec fox who aspires to be an elephant. “You can be anything you want be,” she tells him. Yeah, right. Zootopia occasionally plays with its own pretentious nature but ultimately “settles hard” for the chant of the age.
I recently experienced a painful reminder of how this appeal to inclusion can overreach and become insanity. Every year thousands eagerly attend the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the largest annual gathering of Catholic educators in the country, which hosts a who’s who of Catholic publications, including Ignatius Press. I went to a workshop entitled Transgenderism in the Church: One Bread, One Body, which would later bill itself as the “largest discussion on this issue in the history of the Church.”
Rather than being a healthy affirmation of the dignity of the human person suggested by the title, it became a platform for two people who had undergone sexual reassignment to describe their experience as “God’s saving grace,” constantly pointing out how the Church’s teaching was backwards and wrong, even manipulating scripture to front their cause. Worse still, I watched in muted horror as hundreds of teachers, catechists, and even clergy give them several standing ovations. Many, I suspect, applauded not out of full agreement but fear of being labeled a bigot or even just politeness. Rather than bringing the gospel of Christ to the world, many have allowed the world to bring its gospel into Christ’s church.
On a subconscious level, Zooptoia feeds into this frenzy, but it is doubtful even today’s children will understand any of these larger issues. In the 1950s, this effort would have been revolutionary and necessary. Today, its hard line support of our generation’s relentless hashtivism sucks much of the joy out of an otherwise wonderful movie. What a pity.
This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on March 11th, 2016.