“Zootopia”: A Zoological Critique (Rant)

Immediately after I saw Zootopia, I posted a lengthy series of comments on the film on my Facebook Timeline which I  repost below at Irfan’s behest.

It’s not really a review, just a rant about everything which bothered me in the movie. I don’t think Zootopia is a bad film, but I do think it’s structurally and intellectually lazy. Normally I could forgive a movie for such faults, but Zootopia desperately wants to be about SOMETHING IMPORTANT. That’s fine of course. I completely agree with the film’s message (stereotypes are bad and hurt everyone), and I actually think they tackle it in a pretty clever way by avoiding an oppressor-oppressed social dynamic within the movie’s universe. But since Zootopia really wants to promote a message, it should be held to higher structural and intellectual standards than most films. Unfortunately, under scrutiny, I think it fails.

My post spoils the entire film and most of it can’t be understood without knowing the movie’s premise. For the uninitiated, Zootopia takes place in a world where humans never existed, but at some point in the past all mammals became civilized and ceased eating each other. In the film’s present day, society consists of every mammal species living in peaceful coexistence, from rhinos on down to rodents. The biggest city in the world is the titular Zootopia, a cosmopolitan center with maximum diversity. However, given the inherent natures of different species and their histories, stereotyping is common in Zootopia and the larger world. For instance, the protagonist is a rabbit who dreams of becoming a police officer, but faces rampant discrimination from pretty much everybody because rabbits are perceived as being too weak for such a physically demanding job. More generally, “predator” animals are perceived as strong and capable, but aggressive and dangerous (the mayor Zootopia is a lion). On the other side of the coin, “prey” animals are perceived as virtuous and kind, but weak and docile.

With that preface, my Facebook post:

Things Wrong with Zootopia:

The entire plot is built on a million completely random coincidences to the point where it seems like the two ostensible leads did just about nothing of merit to solve the case. In no particular order.

  • The rabbit and the fox happen to meet each other on a random scam and then the fox just happens to be a key witness in the rabbit’s case. (I am completely fine with this coincidence since it is crucial to launching the bulk of the story.)
  • The rabbit just happens to arrest a weasel thief who is connected to the over-arching political conspiracy before she knows anything about the conspiracy or takes the missing otter case.
  • The rabbit just happens to save the life of a Mafioso’s daughter in a freak accident, which leads the Mafioso to spare her life later and helping her get information out of the weasel thief.
  • The rabbit’s parents just happen to use a poisonous substance as pesticide on their farm which the rabbit deduces to be the poison that is causing predators in Zootopia to go savage. This is the worst coincidence of all. The rabbit does no investigative work to find out the solution to the story’s main mystery. She just happens to overhear the solution by sheer happenstance. It’s like a Dr. House moment where he randomly realizes what the disease is, except at least House uses his intellect to do that.

Beyond random coincidences, there are so many terrible plot contrivances during the third act.

  • When the rabbit discovers what is causing animals to become savage and she returns to Zootopia to crack the case, why doesn’t she go straight to the police? It had already been explicitly established that her old police captain trusted her and believed she was an excellent officer. The acting mayor was also an ally (at least to the rabbit’s knowledge), so why act outside the law?
  • When she interrogates the weasel thief, why does she bring him to her Mafioso friend instead of bringing him to the police station (especially since he was a known criminal)?
  • When the rabbit and fox find the Breaking Bad-style laboratory, why doesn’t the rabbit just leave, tell the police about it, and come back with a SWAT team or something? Instead she launches some insane plan to steal the train and drive it… somewhere I guess. This is despite the fact that the train is old, and sitting in a decommissioned station, and she has never driven a train before, and by taking a random train onto public rails she is endangering every other train already operating in the system (indeed she almost kills an entire train full of innocent civilians with a collision). Of course her plan ends in failure as she destroys all of the evidence save for a single dose of the poison which the fox had the common sense to grab.

The “predator/prey dynamic” as an allegory for “racism” breaks down at a certain point.

  • The prey are stereotyped as weak, passive animals, while predators are stereotyped as being aggressive and savage. Both stereotypes are based on the ancient biological lineage of each animal group. Once upon a time, the predators really were vicious savages who lived by murdering and eating other animals, while prey animals really were meek, passive beings who survived by running and hiding. But in the modern world of Zootopia, the animals’ old ways are long gone, and everyone lives more or less like modern civilized humans.
  • The problem is that this set up is distinctly different from real world racial stereotypes for one massive, crucially important reason: the stereotypes in Zootopia are biologically founded. Contrary to bad 19th century science, black people are were not actually more savage than white people, and Asians were not naturally more sneaky, or whatever other nonsense they believed. But in Zootopia, predators really are genetically linked to savage traits.
  • This doesn’t completely negate the movie’s message and plot, but it does throw a massive wrench in its thematic goal. The central mystery of the movie is that predators in Zootopia are spontaneously reverting to their savage roots, by reverting to all four legs and attacking prey. At one point the rabbit publicly states that the outbreak may be connected to the genetic nature of the predators, and both the fox and the movie itself treat this as some outrageous instance of bigotry for which the rabbit should be condemned.
  • But given what we know about the evolutionary path of the animals in Zootopia, her assertion is not unfounded! Despite the movie’s implications, her statement was not the equivalent to some moronically racist statement like, “black people commit crimes in the modern world because they are genetically descended from tribal-warrior jungle savages.” We know that Zootopia predators really do have a genetic link to savagery. That doesn’t necessarily mean she’s right, but there is no direct evidence that she’s wrong either.
  • It’s also extremely relevant that the only scientist we see in the entire movie posits the “predator-savage reversion” link. The rabbit actually doesn’t make it up herself, but gets the idea from the scientist and repeats it. But for the sake of pure dramatic contrivance, she never brings this fact up to defend herself against charges of bigotry.
  • There are other problems with the movie’s race allegory. Zootopia starts with the rabbit being laughed at for wanting to be a police officer because law enforcement is a difficult physical job which requires the strength of a large animal, usually a predator. We see the rabbit try out for the police academy, where she competes against lions, tigers, bears, rhinos, elephants, panthers, and all other manner of powerful animal. Numerous people even say to her that there has never been a rabbit police officer and likely never would be.
  • That makes sense until you realize that in the world of Zootopia, all mammals of all shapes and sizes are sentient. That includes massive elephants, mid-sized foxes, small rabbits, and extremely small rodents. We even get to see a district of Zootopia populated entirely by rodents, where even the protagonist-rabbit is a giant. So who the hell patrols these area? If a mouse robs a mouse-run bank, do they send a rhino to investigate the crime scene with a microscope? How would a large predator animal even walk through the rodent district without causing Godzilla-levels of destruction?

The movie’s ethical premises are twisted

Ok, so Zootopia is all about how racism and stereotyping are bad. I get that and I agree with it. I even think the thematic message of the movie works quite well if you try not to think past the surface level. On the other hand, the rabbit protagonists does a whole bunch of stuff in the movie which in my mind are unambiguously worse than being racist. The way I see it, the creators of Zootpia think racism is bad, but the following are perfectly acceptable:

  • Using one’s authority as a police officer to black mail and coerce individuals with petty offenses to get them to do your bidding. The rabbit threatens to charge an ice cream shop with a health code violation unless the owner serves a customer he explicitly doesn’t want to serve, and later she threatens to arrest the fox for tax evasion unless he follows her around for the entire day to help with her missing person’s case.
  • A police officer recording a suspect without the suspect or a court’s permission. The rabbit record’s the fox’s confession to tax evasion without his permission and then blackmails him with it. Assuming Zootopia’s legal system works like ours, the rabbit would either need the fox’s permission or a court-granted warrant to record the fox.
  • A police officer entrapping an innocent person. It is illegal for cops to arrest an individual for committing a crime at the behest of a police officer. For instance, a cop can arrest a john for soliciting prostitution from an undercover officer, but they can’t arrest a John for accepting a prostitution offer from an undercover cop. In Zootopia, the rabbit uses her illicitly gained recording of the fox’s confession to bate the fox into trespassing on private property. The rabbit uses this entrapment to continue coercing the fox into assisting her.
  • Working with the mafia to torture a criminal suspect. Seriously. The rabbit suspects that the weasel thief stole chemicals which were used by the villains to craft a toxin to make animals turn savage. She confronts the weasel but he refuses to confess. So she takes the weasel to her mafia friends (the mafia Don like the rabbit because she saved the Don’s daughter’s life) who proceed to threaten to murder the weasel via drowning in a freezing pool.

So stereotyping is bad, but petty tyranny, blackmail, ignoring due process, entrapment, coercion, the mafia, and torture are all acceptable by Disney’s standards.

–Matt Faherty (blogging from China)

4 thoughts on ““Zootopia”: A Zoological Critique (Rant)

  1. Nice review, Matt. I agree with a lot of your criticisms. I’m willing to let more of them slide than you are, and overall I liked the movie. But I fault the movie far more than you do on the issue of biology of predators versus prey. The movie was trying to make a strong claim about human beings and psychological causes of behavior. It was saying that if we think of differences between individuals as having to do with their biology, then that will lead to racism and other forms of prejudice. This goes along with current trends on the left, such as being hypercritical of all studies of biological differences among individuals (for example, IQ). The critique runs something like this: if we allow ourselves to believe that there are natural differences among people in IQ, and that these differences are biological, then we will turn into a racist and even genocidal society.

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  2. That’s an interesting take. I think you’re absolutely right and my critique didn’t go far enough.

    Consider that no one ever suggests to the rabbit that maybe it makes sense that there are no rabbit police officers. Rabbits are tiny, relatively weak animals which would have no ability to apprehend large animals like tigers, elephants, rhinos, etc. It’s not even like a 120 pound female cop trying to arrest a 200 pound male cop, it’s more like expecting a 50 pound, 8 year old female to physically apprehend a 300 pound male body builder, if not worse.

    Yet in the movie, no reason is ever given for the non-existence of police rabbits besides unfair discrimination. The idea of accepting even the most blatantly obvious genetic disparities is anathema to the movie’s themes.

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    • I haven’t seen the movie, and likely won’t, but a thought occurred to me with your response to Raymond here, and I wonder what you think. Suppose there are no police rabbits and the only reason given is that rabbits are too small and weak for police work. If the only relevant criteria of suitability for police work were strength and size, it would indeed be silly to present this reason as unfair discrimination. But in the real world, strength and size are not the only criteria of suitability for police work, and police work comes in many different forms, only some of which will ever likely require an individual officer to rely on her size and strength. Setting aside the facts that police are trained in the use of weapons that minimize the need for size and strength and that they frequently work in teams to subdue violent individuals, a whole lot of police work is investigative and interrogative, and for these size and strength are almost completely irrelevant and things like intelligence and personality are paramount. In the real world, if someone’s only reason for maintaining that a 100 pound, 5’1″ woman is not suited for police work were that she is not big and strong enough, I think this would license the inference that the people holding that view are not only unfairly discriminating against her, but simply rationalizing their prejudices. So the question for the film would be: does it present rabbits and police work in a way that shows that the rabbits are in fact well suited to it and can make important contributions? If so, I don’t see why we should read it as propaganda for a sort of egalitarianism that is blind to reality. No doubt it would be better if characters did suggest that it makes sense that there are no rabbit police officers because they aren’t big and strong enough, since this would highlight the way in which unfair discrimination typically makes sense to the people doing the discriminating, but only because they themselves are blind to the relevant ways in which the people (or rabbits, I guess) they’re discriminating against are in fact well suited to making valuable contributions to the task.

      More generally, Raymond’s point about the irrational excess with which some people resist biological explanations for individual differences is significant, but I think we also ought to view that in light of the similarly irrational excess to which practitioners of certain sciences in the past century and a half or so have leapt to biological explanations that turn out to be bunk. Especially now that there seems (to an outsider, at least) to be a greater appreciation for the fact that biological factors are not necessarily innate and determined, but often shaped by environmental factors, we should resist the suggestion that we will fall into racism, sexism, and the like if we take biological explanations seriously. But there seems to be plenty of reason to tread carefully here, given that many biologists and psychologists, or at least their representatives in popular writing, seem to be willing to make a similarly irrational leap from the correlation of individual differences with biological differences to the claim that innate biological factors are in the causal driver’s seat, as it were. Otherwise put, people all over the ideological spectrum seem to have an unfortunate tendency to think muddled thoughts about these issues, and not just in propagandistic cartoon movies.

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  3. Pingback: Reblog: Matt Faherty’s “Zootopia: A Zoological Critique/Rant” | Policy of Truth

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