Zootopia and Subtlety

I’m thinking about Zootopia a lot lately, so that’s what you get a post on. I’m going to preface this by saying that there are a lot of reviews that praise its subtlety; I’m not picking this topic because it’s a trend in commentary or anything. I’ve just seen this kind of comment more than once and I wanted to respond to it, and also to tell you guys about some of the neat things I and others have noticed in the film, because it just makes me happy as a storyteller and casual film buff to see artful screenwriting like this.


People have had varying reactions to the concepts of prejudice in Zootopia. One of the early reviews I read (which I can’t find anymore or I’d link to it) said “It’s not as subtle as Pixar’s best work,” which I found a little head-scratching. Not as subtle as the mountains of garbage and corpulent people on floating beds in WALL-E? Not as subtle as Syndrome saying, “When everyone’s super…no-one will be.”? The tone that I get from the people complaining that it’s not subtle are the ones who think that Judy’s “A rabbit can call another rabbit cute, but when other animals do it…” is hitting the nail too squarely on the head, that Nick’s, “You can only be what you are” is too starkly presented as a straw man to be knocked down.*

(* And also, if we’re comparing movies that are subtle about prejudice and racism or even just big social issues, let’s not confine ourselves to Disney/Pixar. Zootopia comes off well in comparison to racism-themed Oscar winner Crash, which had all the subtlety of a brick wrapped in a sledgehammer and even at the time felt about twenty years out of date. I may still be bitter about Brokeback Mountain not winning best pic that year.)

Here’s the thing: those statements are pretty stark, yeah. But they set up interactions and scenes later in the movie. They’re necessary to establish the context in which the rest of the movie takes place (let’s not forget that this movie needs to be accessible to kids). And that’s where the subtlety comes in. Judy establishes that being called “cute” is offensive to rabbits, and then Nick’s remark to her that “a toy store is missing its stuffed animal” becomes not just rude, but a microaggression, something deliberately calculated to be hurtful based on her species. But she doesn’t break the flow of the conversation to point this out again. After his third ‘cute’ comment (he calls her a “cute meter maid” at their first meeting), she does say, “Don’t call me ‘cute’,” as they’re about to set off on their investigation, but it’s sharp and matter-of-fact, delivered with just the right amount of “I’m about fed up with this.”

Judy’s Fox Repellent, similarly, is kind of right up front–but it also sneakily doubles as a symbol, the kind of thing that very smart non-animated movies also do. It’s not just a convenient thing to signal to Nick that she’s not really over her prejudices. It’s a stand-in for prejudice itself. We most often get our prejudices from our parents and though we might think they’re stupid, we still carry them around with us. We might forget about them because they’re so small, but they’re often obvious to other people (Nick: “Don’t think I didn’t notice that the first time we met.”). And in a stressful situation, we find ourselves unconsciously reaching for them.

What I think is beautiful and subtle about Zootopia is the way it has so many moments and points that it just lets happen without calling attention to them. The biggest is in the climactic scene, when we’re so caught up in our heroes foiling the plot that it’s easy to miss that Judy has just let Nick put his teeth on her throat. There’s no acknowledgment of that moment, of the trust that now exists between them and the giant step she’s taken–it’s masked by the callback to the beginning of the film and the triumph of our heroes. Similarly, not long after Nick explains to Judy his philosophy of “Never let them see that they get to you,” he breaks down in the press conference scene, visibly affected by her betrayal. That moment gains a lot of depth when you think about how much she must have reached him just before.

(The film’s structure is a little unconventional, but from a character standpoint the first half–up to that point–is really Nick’s story. His arc completes when he fills out the application Judy gives him, when he trusts someone enough to try to be part of something again. Judy’s character arc takes place in the second half, although most of the change is signaled in the scene under the bridge with Nick and the second half is more devoted to the two of them solving the case than to any character development.)

Zootopia is unsubtle in some areas, sure. But it’s as subtle as it can be, and that is largely why it works so well for adults as well as kids. Many of the points above I didn’t notice on a first viewing; several of them were pointed out by other people in discussions about the movie (and we can talk endlessly about the movie). The second and third time (and fourth and fifth) you go back to see it, you notice new things: about the story, about the characters, about the world building. Picking up later on things you didn’t notice the first time, or having other people notice things you missed–that’s subtle. I’ve watched a number of Pixar and Disney movies multiple times, and I don’t think there’s another one that’s had so rich a world behind it or such complexity in two main characters.

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