By Abe Rose
Zootopia is like George Orwell’s Animal Farm applied to race relations in modern America. It seems like the movie truly couldn’t have come at a better time, as it aims to combat the fear and divisiveness that some very specific political candidates thrive on. I don’t envy parents that have to explain to their kids why one of the leading candidates is dominating in this election on a platform of demonizing entire racial and religious groups of people. Zootopia is a movie that uses animals as symbols to lay out the case against such hateful thinking. Imagine a whole cartoon movie about Affirmative Action clashing with Trump’s xenophobia, but illustrated with cute bunnies and talking animals, and that’s Zootopia.
It is also the funniest Disney film in years, too. As is expected with these modern animated movies, the movie contains all sorts of great nuggets of comedy that adults would appreciate more than kids. They’ve even snuck in a clear reference to Breaking Bad‘s Jesse and Walter. Whoever would have thought to see a meth dealer reference in a Disney cartoon? Just a couple years ago, from Wreck-It-Ralph, Disney put in Kano from Mortal Kombat pulling out someone’s heart while sitting next to Satan. Disney has sure come a long way from G-rated “It’s a Small World After All.”
The film introduces us to the premise of this anthropomorphic utopia in the guise of a children’s play, acted out by a little bunny and tiger. Animals are divided into two groups: predators and prey. Long ago, the animals were ruled by violent natures, and basic instincts. They would hunt or be hunted. But since then, these animals have evolved into beings that can coexist under one banner of civilization. No longer does a tiger have to slash prey, a tiger can now slash prices as a car salesman. A fox doesn’t have to steal food anymore, a fox can steal the hearts and minds of the voting democratic populous.
Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a bunny who dreams of becoming the first bunny police officer. She has been told from a very young age that she can be whatever she wants to be. She can make her dreams a reality. But while she is told to follow her idealistic passions, there are undercurrents working against her. No one actually expects a bunny to be able to join the police force, which is made up of mostly big, brawny predators. While most of the animals tell their kids that they can be whatever they want to be, they don’t actually believe that their kids can succeed. This is hitting an hugely important issue right in its furry jugular.
Zootopia uses animal prejudice as metaphors for racial prejudice. Only bunnies are allowed to call other bunnies “cute.” It’s wrong to assume that all foxes are cheats. Don’t call sloths “slow”; that’s a stereotype. These are not prejudices in the sweeping sense, like the march of KKK members in Birth of a Nation, but rather these are racial prejudices in a post-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. era. It’s subtle. The animals have evolved to form a civilization, and are still trying to navigate the road to equality. At the same time, they must acknowledge their troubled and violent pasts and work beyond it. Mistakes are made. Some big, and some really big, but the drive is there to keep moving forward toward King’s Dream.
Judy Hopps strives for that ideal, yet she still keeps a can of fox spray. You know, for just in case. Those foxes have a history of being violent. It’s in their DNA. When her fox partner, Nick (Jason Bateman) calls her out on her prejudice and asks her if she is afraid of him, she essentially tells him, “Well, you’re not like those other foxes.” Even an idealistic and good-natured bunny like Judy is capable of making huge errors in judgment. She is strives for equality for all, but she is flawed and makes mistakes. She makes big enough mistakes to really hurt her close friends. This is perhaps the most honest cartoon I’ve ever seen about race relations.
All of the animals have their own prejudices to work through. Prey and predator may get along on the surface, but it just takes a crisis to allow dormant fears to bubble to the surface. Even in a near animal utopia like this one, politicians can use scapegoats to blame for society’s woes. Something of this nature happens in Zootopia, something of which I will not go into details. However, I do want to point out a few things about the timing of the release of the film and our current political events. Animation takes a long time to make. Planning and execution can take years. Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president less than a year ago. There’s no way these storytellers could have known the course of America’s political journey since Zootopia was greenlit, yet they have made a film that parallels and rebukes the use of racial fear and tension that Trump represents. Sometimes a film comes along at just the right time. This one comes to challenge Trump’s racist rhetoric, like a bull charging a matador with his back turned to the cheering crowd.
The movie is deeply thoughtful about racism in its many forms. The prey outnumbers the predators 10 to 1, but the prey are almost shut out entirely from various jobs. This poor bunny has to face Institutionalized Racism. Maybe Institutionalized Racism is the wrong term, for she is a bunny, after all. Institutionalized Speciesism? Her police chief (Idris Elba) seems to think that the only reason why she got the job is because of affirmative action. Judy has to work more than twice as hard to stand out. When she dreams of solving big cases, she is given the remedial task of writing parking tickets. She is supposed to write a hundred by the end of the day, so she sets out to write two hundred before lunchtime. She gets back up and stands eleven rounds, when life in all its unfairness keeps knocking her down. She is exactly the type of Disney hero for young kids everywhere to look up to as a role model.
Disney has been listening to feminist criticisms, which have pointed out the rarity of strong, empowered female characters in classic Disney films. Disney has been on a new streak of creating good role models for young girls to look up to. Elsa, Merida, Rapunzel, and Tiana are strong female characters, but are ultimately let down by weak movies. I do not believe in giving weak movies a pass as long as I agree with their messages. The movie must be quality. Zootopia and Judy Hopps, I can get behind, one hundred percent. This is not only a great Disney movie with a great role model; it is one of the smartest and most thoughtful animated films in years. This is the best Disney movie in a long, long time.