Zootopia (2016)

“Gulls Gone Wild”


At the heart of my study of the films made at Pixar Animation Studios is the figure of the trickster, a mythological figure who fights corrupt power with thievery and cunning. I derive this tradition in American animation from the works of Dr. Seuss, who used an autobiographical lad to express his discontent with a most imperfect America. In If I Ran the Zoo (1950), a boy rails against the limitations of the animals to be found in his small town, invoking the far more interesting creatures that could only exist in his wildest imagination.

Dr. Seuss would unleash his trickster proclivities in an assault on American conservatism: The Butter Battle Book (1984) allegorizes the insanity of nuclear war as a direct response to the sabre rattling of Ronald Reagan’s arms buildup. While we may dismiss contemporary Pixar films as money-making juggernauts, they are also popular for the same reasons Dr. Seuss books are beloved: they deliver a much needed critique of the otherwise accepted ways of the world. And thus, Wall-e (Andrew Stanton, 2008) is the greatest American environmental text since Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (1971).

The latest film from the Walt Disney Corporation, Zootopia (directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush) demonstrates that the trickster impulse has finally infected the heart of the beast itself. I believe this is the work of Pixar genius John Lasseter, hired to run both animation units after the merger of the two companies. By invoking a trickster fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) as the Jungian helper to its central female protagonist, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), Zootopia becomes a far more potent argument against the illogic of the Donald Trump campaign than any live-action film made this year.

Zootopia synthesizes a remarkable set of trickster mythologies. Its central conceit, that predators and prey can overcome biology and live peacefully, lies at the heart of the tradition. The trickster thrives in such boundary states. Judy refuses her life as a rural farmer to come to the big city as the very first rabbit police officer. She apprehends Nick the con artist fox, another major trickster figure in the mythological tradition, to begin work on a case which threatens to rip the utopian city apart: predators are suddenly returning to their “natural state” and viciously attacking their prey.

This evildoing seems to be the work of Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons). As Henry Louis Gates reads the trickster tradition, Eshu, the monkey from African Yoruba stories uses his “signifying” skills to displace the lion’s status as the King of the Jungle. The dismantling of the mayor’s power in Zootopia comes at the hands of Judy’s police work, linking the film to the Br’er Rabbit trickster common to the African-American folk tradition.

The con artist fox positions the film as heir to another trickster mythology, one concerned with the Native American coyote. In one story, coyote helps people fight against frogs monopolizing their water supply. His explanation—“it is not right that one people have all the water”—strikes at the heart of the politics of Zootopia. The film’s plot, about two different tricksters combining forces to fight injustice and restore a socially just world allegorizes our current political plight. As Donald Trump activates the worst parochialism in the American character, summoning fear as a political weapon to kick immigrants out of the country via deportation and wall-building, Zootopia summons a massive counter-cultural force, the best of what America has been, a place of opportunity and understanding.

While the film’s didactic dialogue makes this project clear, it is its images that best carry the artistic banner. The film opens with a young Judy in elementary school delivering a puppet show that exposes our fear of predators as a thing of the past: the spectators of the fiction, predator and prey, live in peaceful co-existence, horrified at the puppets’ vicious behavior in the play. At the end of the film, this imagistic artifice is re-activated.

The villain thinks she has trapped our heroes in a pit at a natural history museum. She fires what she thinks is serum into the fox, knowing that he will revert to barbarity and devour Judy. However, Nick and Judy have tricked her, replicating the performance from the beginning of the film to coax her confession. The plan works, and she is arrested. The fact that this villain is a cute sheep is the film’s ultimate embrace of the trickster tradition: the final narrative border crossing is an adage: beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Zootopia trumps the Donald, refusing to duck behind his embrace of barbarism. Though we dearly miss Dr. Seuss’ trickster voice, his animated spirit lives on, and we continue to fight that which cannot be tolerated, injustice and inhumanity.

–Walter Metz