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Children's movie allegories for racism ranked

Discrimination and prejudice are storytelling devices that have been used in fiction for years. The discrimination is often between different fantastical races like elves and orcs. Majority of the time, these narratives resemble racial tensions that exist in our current society, which can lead to problematic storylines and depictions of racial minorities if not handled properly. This issue has arisen in children’s animated movies, which have the extra challenge of handling these issues in a manner that a child would understand, and some movies handle this challenge better than others. Here, I will be ranking the racism allegories in five animated children's movies.

Before we get into the list, I would like to note that I acknowledge some of these depictions may not have been made to represent race, or may have even been created by people who have done the work to portray these complicated issues the best they could. However, once published, the work is out there for the audience to interpret regardless of intention. This list is based solely on the information an average watcher would have, disregarding possible context behind-the-scenes interviews could provide.

Here are five racism allegories in animated kids movies, ranked: 

5. “Zootopia”

Starting off with the worst, “Zootopia” is abysmal as a metaphor for race and discrimination. Applying the predator and prey narrative to real life, it shows other races posing an actual biological threat to other races. Even if the moral of the story is predator and prey are equally dangerous, they still have a history where one hunted the other. It just does not work if there is a real, valid reason for fear between the races. The entire depiction is rather muddy. It is not entirely clear who is representing what: the way the majority of “Zootopia” caters to the bigger prey species that hold the majority of positions of power (and have historically) points them towards representing white people, particularly white cisgender men. 

Meanwhile, incidents such as the Otterton’s case being ignored, the taboo around touching a sheep’s wool and Judy’s difficulty with navigating spaces not made with her in mind, points prey towards being minorities. However, Nick the fox crosses this line. The scene where he is rebuffed from the Elephant's ice-cream shop resembles how minorities used to be outright refused services, and Judy telling Nick he is "articulate" mirrors how minorities are given the same "compliment" when they speak "proper" or unaccented English. 

Additionally, statistically the predators only make up a minority of the population, while the prey massively outnumber them, which would point towards the "more likely to turn savage" predators to representing minorities. These blurred lines confuse the power dynamics: is the relationship between predator and prey, as the main storyline suggests, or are the dynamics based upon individual species, dependent solely on size and strength? 

You may think that it is a good thing that both predator and prey suffer from discrimination. You may also think that it is limiting to judge “Zootopia” solely on how accurately you could project a race onto a specific species. I would agree. However, I do not think Zootopia has the space or time to explore how both those in power and those in the minority suffer because of discrimination, and I don’t think what is shown of that conversation carries particularly well. Additionally, as long as we use animals to discuss human issues, we must acknowledge what we are implying through the use of the animal kingdom. If what we are implying is that one race is inherently stronger, bigger and more dangerous than the other no matter how much the narrative is trying to depict otherwise, we need to try a different avenue. 

4. “Elemental”

“Elemental” is a beautiful story, both as a romance and a coming-of-age story for Ember, the daughter of immigrants. Many first-generation kids can relate to Ember’s feelings of obligation to her parents, who have left their homeland behind in order to provide a better life for her. The fire elementals read clearly as Asian, but other immigrant identities could also apply, and I loved the depiction of how immigrant communities find each other and form. However, as others have pointed out, there are a few issues with depicting the immigrant families as fire. Beyond the obvious implications, such as suggesting Asian people to be quick to anger or explosive, like “Zootopia,” the different races pose an actual threat to each other, giving actual grounds for discrimination. The danger was to the point of the possibility of instant death by being in each other's spaces in the case of fire and water. 

One interesting point of difference, is while the predator spaces in “Zootopia” were incompatible for the smaller prey species, the infrastructure of the city being water-based and dangerous for the fire elementals is an interesting flip where the race that is being discriminated against for being dangerous is actually put in the most danger. This is due to infrastructure that has been created both without them in mind and to keep them out. It brings a connection to the systems in America that keep families from affluent places in a way I have not seen in children's media before. Yet, the issue still stands that people are being depicted as completely separate categories, making “Elemental” not the worst depiction of race out there, but still not the best, landing it in fourth place.

3. “Lion King II: Simba’s Pride”

We are back to using animals as our narrative device with “Lion King II.” However, it is not between the different animal species that we have race tensions between. Instead, the conflict is between two different groups of lions: the lions who live in the Pride Lands and Scar’s followers who live in the Outlands. The tensions being between the same species saves “Lion King II” from the issue of the predator and prey dynamic. In fact, the conflict is resolved once the Pride Land lions realize that they are being unjust to people who, although they look a little different, are still fellow lions. 

However, “Lion King II” still slightly suffers from the trend of giving those in power a good reason to discriminate against the minority. The lions in the Outlands are banished because they believed in Scar’s philosophy, which endangered the circle of life. Although it was wrong to punish the children of these lions, it still gave the Pride Land lions good reason to force the other lions into segregation. This, again, is problematic when we apply this back to a human context, as it could suggest that although this generation of people of color do not deserve segregation, there was good reasoning behind the past segregation. When talking about prejudice and discrimination, there should never have been a valid reason for the discrimination in the first place, making “Lion King II: Simba’s Pride” third on my list. 

2. “The Bad Guys”

You may be thinking, why is “The Bad Guys” so high on this list? It’s got most of what we have identified as a problem so far: representing minorities as genuinely dangerous species and having minorities as another in comparison to the rest of the public. However, “The Bad Guys” succeeds in many areas that the previous movies do not. The bad guy crew consists solely of predator species, true; however, the movie does not outright give the audience a real historical reason why these species should be feared. Where “Zootopia” gives us a play about the past tensions between predator and prey, and “Lion King II” has the context of a war between the two lions, the basis of the discrimination of our bad guy crew is all based on fictional stories. Throughout the movie we see that these stories about our crew are just that, stories. 

The closest we get to the characters posing a genuine threat to others is the fact that Snake wants to eat guinea pigs. Otherwise, the humans and the other species in “The Bad Guys” universe are not shown to be genuinely under threat by the crew. However, the public has conflated fairytales as reasoning to fear our protagonists which ultimately led them to be pushed out by society, forcing them into a life of crime as there were little to no opportunities for them elsewhere. 

I find that this represents the struggle people of color, particularly young Black men, have finding jobs when they are discriminated against based on their appearance, leading them to fall back into the roles society has made up for them, such as organized crime. Once the public stopped treating the bad guy crew according to the legends against them, our cast was able to integrate into society with no issues. The animal characteristics of our characters act more as costumes rather than having a heavy influence on the plot — if they were humanized, the story would still carry well with only a few minor rewrites, something I could not say for “Zootopia,” putting “The Bad Guys” at number two.

Honorable mentions: “Shark Tale” and “Ernest and Celestine”

Before we get into number one, I wanted to acknowledge films like “Shark Tale” and “Ernest and Celestine” which, too, have two or more different groups of people that are in conflict with one another. Neither of these films made it on my list not only because I wanted to write about five films, but because I did not think their stories really had anything to do with prejudice on the basis of race. 

It is important to note that even though most stories about discrimination can and do relate to race relations, and I recognize that there are times that this connection is minor (such as in the case of “Ernest and Celestine”) or mostly unimportant against what the movie is focusing on (such as in the case of “Shark Tale”). Although we could relate these films to racism, as we could with many other depictions out there where one group is discriminating against the other, those conversations are important. They are important when discussing what the media is doing when they are invoking race relations on purpose versus on accident. For this list, we are looking for animated films who are invoking racism allegories outright, rather than on the side and mostly by accident.

1. "Trolls World Tour"

This might be an oddball. Many people have not even seen this movie of their own free will. However, "Trolls World Tour" handles race relations the best in any children's media I've seen, both in movies and in televised series. In fact, it may be the only one who does it completely right. The different troll races are indeed noticeably physically different from each other – some have tails or four legs or are covered in glitter – but none of their physical differences are treated as a biological advantage over the other. And, most importantly, the different trolls are not treated as separate creatures. The Bergens, for example, are all still fundamentally trolls, just a different category. A fox is a predator of a bunny, fire and water are molecularly different. But the electro trolls, funk trolls and classical music trolls are all still trolls. It indeed is even in their name. Plus, these trolls are not entirely separate from each other, such as the existence of Cooper, who has multiple identities (Pop and Funk). One troll does not intrinsically pose a threat over the other tolls just by existing. The only threat was one type deciding they are superior to the others, subjecting the other trolls underneath their rule because they have decided what is “correct.” 

Additionally, "Trolls World Tour" takes it a step further by revealing how the trolls who fractured the trolls into categories, the Pop Trolls, have controlled the narrative to make it seem as though the world has always existed this way. On top of that, Poppy’s arc about realizing she needed to help the other trolls without imposing her culture upon theirs is an important message to young activists about the dangers of help having the capacity to be harmful, a topic I have never seen a children's movie try to tackle before. The "Trolls World Tour" race narrative is truly a masterful execution of exploring these complex topics in a well rounded way that puts it in a league of its own. "Trolls World Tour" is number one on my list across the board.

Alesha Davis is a senior studying journalism and English at Ohio University. Please note that the views of the columnist do not reflect those of  The Post. What are your thoughts? Tell Alesha by tweeting her at @AleshaTDavis

Alesha Davis

Equity Director

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