Archives in the Movies: Zootopia
Updated: Dec 19, 2020
I'll admit, since my nephew became a constant in my life there have been quite a few movies on constant rotation and Zootopia is one of them. That gives me the rare opportunity to observe and analyze the character development, plot holes, and bits of minutiae that make my little heart sing, but might be devastating to children should I voice them aloud. Let's just say it's a good thing my platform is limited to the appearance of archives, archivists, records, and the like because I have many questions and observations about the Cars franchise that could very easily venture into conspiracy theories about the End Times and the rise of sentient vehicles.
Like I said, limited platform.
Okay, so the plot of Zootopia revolves around Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) becoming the first rabbit cop in the city of Zootopia where, she assumes, all predators and prey live together in harmony. Those dreams are quickly dashed when she finds pushback from her superior officer, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), and gets easily hustled by a wily fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). In order to prove that she's a "real cop," Judy puts her job on the line to find a missing otter only to discover the greater conspiracy at the heart of Zootopia as relations between predators and prey, including Judy and Nick, teeter on the breaking point.
At its core, Zootopia is an Aesop-level parable about racism that works well enough for children. Biology doesn't define us, but we also have to try if we want to make the world better by listening and overcoming stereotypes and our biases. Oddly enough, Zootopia likes to lean into some narrative tropes I'd like to see storytellers try to curb. One being how archives and records are viewed.
There are two instances in the film where an archive is shown or mentioned. The first is when Judy and Nick visit Assistant Mayor Bellwether's (Jenny Slate) office to get access to the city's traffic cameras. The camera pushes in on the office door, a taped on sign just below the blocked window, surrounded by banker's boxes marked "URGENT." Inside the office, there are more boxes, file cabinets, and the building's boiler. Yes, the records storage/archive for the mayor's office is in the boiler room.
The second instance is later in the film when it's assumed that predators in Zootopia are "going savage" because it's hardwired into their DNA. Clawhauser (Nate Torrance), the ZPD's front desk officer and a donut-loving cheetah, is removed from his post and sent to Records in order to make any prey who enter the building feel comfortable regardless of Clawhauser's natural cheerfulness. Oddly enough, the ZPD's records department is near the boiler room.
In both cases, the storage of records is used as a means of showing how out-of-the-way or unimportant each character is within the narrative. Bellwether is unappreciated and stepped on constantly by her boss, Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons), so of course she's buried in boxes and files in the last place anyone would care to look. And in Clawhauser's case, while he's still allowed to remain employed, he's all but exiled to Records because it's as far away from the main hub of the ZPD as one can get. Neither scenario, however, paints records and archives in a positive light despite the fact that government and law enforcement rely a great deal on records.
Unfortunately, Zootopia gives in to the stereotype of records and archives being distant, even isolating areas where a person is least likely to be noticed. Does that change the overall message of the movie? No, but it would be nice if the cultural shorthand for "least important place" or "out-of-the-way of public observation" wasn't automatically an archival or record-keeping setting.