So, that furry movie, right?
Okay, okay, so the internet has a way of reducing Disney’s newest flick Zootopia to just “that furry movie”, and I’ll be honest: I went (in part) just to see how furry it could get. How many buff, aesthetically pleasing tigers would the audience be introduced to? After Disney’s previous animated movie, I was cautiously optimistic that at the very least Zootopia would be more entertaining—an optimism that was supported by every other person who had seen the film before me. To my pleasure, not only was Zootopia a funny, adorable film, it also had a lot of things to say about the problems privilege and prejudice can bring, even if the film didn’t exactly know what it was doing with the latter at points.
Spoilers beneath the cut.
If there’s anything everyone knows about rabbits, it’s that they’re small. However, Judy Hopps, a small town farmgirl from Bunny Burrow, isn’t going to let that stop her from achieving her dreams of becoming the first rabbit policewoman. Through hard work and dedication, Judy graduates from her police academy at the top of her class! Additionally, thanks to an inclusive initiative set by Zootopia’s mayor, Mayor Lionheart, Judy is stationed in the most important precinct, located right in the middle of downtown Zootopia.Thrilled despite the brimming worry of her parents, Judy sets off for the big city.
Unfortunately, city life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Judy has the quintessential shitty apartment—small with noisy neighbors that yell all night—and no one on the police force takes her seriously or even considers her skills. In the middle of a huge missing mammals case, she’s assigned to parking meter duty, but Judy makes the best of it. Her determination to prove herself to her superiors only wavers slightly after meeting a fox named Nick, who’s trying to buy an ice pop for his child in an elephant establishment, with the owner not so subtly telling him that he doesn’t “serve their kind here”. Using her cunning, Judy manages to threaten the elephant into serving Nick (or risk being charged on health and safety violations), and the three leave on a seemingly upbeat note. Not even a day later, she discovers Nick using the ice pop in a number of shady, but legal, business ventures—turns out Nick is a con man, and his “child” is actually a full grown adult. Judy approaches him about this, but Nick just tells her to be realistic, and that Zootopia isn’t this place where everyone can be what they want to be.
Reality beating down on her, Judy grows increasingly agitated with not being allowed to make the world a better place. Due to an argument she gets into with the police chief, she ends up being able to flex her muscles—she’s assigned to one of the missing mammal cases, but if she doesn’t find them in forty-eight hours, she has to resign. With no leads but one picture, Judy utilizes the only resource she has at her disposal: Nick. And what they find shakes up the core of Zootopia itself.
Zootopia has a lot of good, applicable messages of believing in yourself and reaching for your dreams. More than that, it feels like realistic encouragement. The roadblocks to Judy’s dreams aren’t some evil wizard or seemingly unfathomable obstacle, but typical, everyday things that can just wear you down and make you bitter. Parents who are well-intentioned, but don’t read the mood and just make things worse, people getting angry at you for doing your job, not being allowed to show the full potential of your skills: this is simply real life, and something I’m sure all the older people in the audience have experienced on multiple occasions. It’s because Judy fights back against these obstacles—they do get her down and make her re-think her choices once or twice, but she keeps going—that she’s able to take control of her dream, and be the kind of person she wants to be in the end. It also offers a happy ending for those like Nick: those people who have been shit on their entire lives because of who they are, and found it easier to live like people expected them to, rather than keep trying for a dream that repeatedly crushed them. It doesn’t make you any less of a person, it doesn’t give you any less value, and using those skills you learned you can help others and maybe even get back a piece of the dream you’ve been hiding in your heart.
Of course, as much as I can talk about dreams and hard work, the core of this movie was about the manifestation of prejudice and how messy and detrimental it can be when no one recognizes it. Speaking with Luce (who I watched the movie with) afterward, we both agreed that the movie had some good points about discrimination and privilege, but that it wasn’t exactly analogous to the problems we currently face. The overarching binary is between “prey” and “predators”—the conflict comes in when predators are injected with a drug that makes them “go savage” and attack any other animal that comes in close contact with them. While both Judy and the main antagonist are animals of prey, and women, sexism itself isn’t exactly strongly addressed in Zootopia, as the animals of prey are largely shown to be equal in gender diversity (I would say even that more male-coded animals of prey are shown, but that’s only because there are more guys in the film than women in general). It does seem to be touched on for a moment since Judy is not really respected in her precinct until she shows herself to be as physically tough as the others, and the only other known lady in the same precinct–Francine the elephant–is definitely “one of the guys” (as she’s shown roughhousing with the others on immediately apparent equal footing).
Concerning the police precinct, they also don’t seem to be making race an issue. With all the racist violence white police officers are subjecting the Black community to in real life, it seems like odd timing to have a Black-led precinct of cops be at the forefront of an animated film. While it’s certainly not uncommon for the leader of a given organization to be the stoic, in-command Black person (Nick Fury, anyone?), given the timing, it feels as though Disney was attempting to shoehorn in some “but not all police are bad, u guys” rhetoric using Chief Bogo as some sort of prop. But then again, it could just be unfortunate timing. Although it’s extremely appreciated that Disney didn’t end up making the Idris Elba police force actually corrupt and bad, there’s just something that leaves a strange taste in my mouth about having no bad cops in the movie at all. Sure, Judy resigns after realizing that her statement about predatory animals having “something in their DNA” that makes them more prone to violence is speciest, but she’s also one of the heroes of the movie and is understandably redeemed.
While Disney’s efforts are clearly noticeable, they still seem a little tone deaf to some of the deeper applications of their message, most noticeably with Nick himself. It’s not explicitly clear which minority group Nick is a stand-in for; however, whatever it happens to be, it doesn’t change the fact that his voice actor–Jason Bateman–is a white guy. So while in-universe Zootopia expresses the clashes of prejudices with a bit of nuance and lets the minority groups speak for themselves, in reality it ends up being a cast of mostly white people talking about minority issues that many of them don’t have to face.
For the most part, it seems like Disney is asking people to look at their own prejudices and realize how they could be hurting people, or could hurt people in the future. Not necessarily as a direct comparison to a group in real life, but just in general. While this isn’t as deep a message as I maybe wanted, for a kid’s movie it’s still culturally poignant and presented in a way that makes it easy to grasp for younger ones. Judy isn’t let off the hook by Nick for carrying around fox repellent for three-fourths of the movie, and even though she had a bad childhood experience with a fox, she understands that carrying around the repellent was a fucked up thing to do (and that foxes should not be singled out for potential bunny attacks). We understand that the antagonist was justified in feeling belittled by the mayor because he didn’t respect her, but we also understand that not every predator should suffer because some of them are assholes.
For me, at least, one of the most relevant lines comes from Zootopia’s biggest music star, Gazelle. During a protest in Zootopia to stop the outbreak in violence against predators, she states that this new Zootopia, filled with open hate, isn’t the Zootopia she loves. She cries for the return of the old Zootopia, where people got along. However, she’s ignoring that this is the Zootopia she’s loved all along: the prejudices were still there, but silent and scornful instead of, now, violent. While the message of Zootopia gets a bit messy with how all the prejudices interlace with each other, what’s abundantly clear is that we shouldn’t wait until our prejudices burst into violence to address them. Everyone in a position of privilege (and even those who aren’t) needs to examine themselves, and realize that these discriminatory beliefs can only bring more hate and pain into the world. Upon realizing that, we must actively work to become better and not let these prejudices influence our decisions. We’ll mess up, that’s a given, but we must try and try again. Looking at the abundance of racism and general grossness of the Trump corner of politics, this message may be coming a bit late—but better late than never. Zootopia may not be perfect, but it’s a fantastic, humorous movie whose lesson we need now, more than ever.