It’s a disturbing time in American culture, for many reasons. Specific to the moment, a demagogue bully is running wild with the Republican voter base precisely because of his blatant, poisonous xenophobia. But for the past two weeks, the biggest movie at the box office has been a heartfelt allegory confronting institutional racism and systematic prejudice. I like to think, or hope, that’s not a coincidence.
If you haven’t seen it yet, Zootopia follows Judy Hopps, a compassionate bunny who wants to make the world a better place. She follows her dreams of becoming the first rabbit police officer despite pushback from her rural carrot-farming hometown, and even though she works her tail off to graduate as valedictorian, she’s instantly met with workplace discrimination within the Zootopia Police Department (otherwise known as the ZPD, heh). The chief doesn’t take Judy seriously and delegates her to meter maid duty on her first day, while other animals infantilize her on sight because of their assumptions. She’s too tiny, too cute — an offensive description that only other bunnies are allowed to use — and too much of a wide-eyed optimist. Determined to prove herself, Judy teams up with a criminal fox to investigate a mystery about disappearing predator animals, which leads both characters down a path of confronting their implicit biases.
Zootopia’s smart. So, so unfairly smart. It lives up to the hype, which might be hard to believe if you’re not a fan of the oligarchy conglomerate that produced it. Rather than serving as a Frozen 2.0, aka a cheap way for Disney to make more money, it’s a wonderful, sweet, ambitious story that reminds me (maybe on purpose) of Aesop’s Fables. It shines a glaring spotlight on the very awful parts of our very real world, and the awful parts of ourselves as people, with dogged honesty, yet manages to not be too on-the-nose if you’re not interested in watching it solely for the morality tale aspect. It’s an interesting story on its own merit, with surprisingly dense twists and immense nuance in all the aspects it tackles — characterization, animation, artistic design, and, especially, bigotry.
In Zootopia, despite the surface-level harmony of predator and prey living together peacefully, injustice runs deep. We see case after case of profiling, policing, and stereotyping — characters who can’t see past their own limited experience, and the harm that hatred causes minority groups on both an individual and mass level. Despite suffering from discrimination herself, Judy isn’t immune to imposing stereotypes on her fox partner Nick Wilde; even though she tries to embrace open-mindedness, she falls easily into her parents’ repeated assertions that foxes are dangerous and can’t be trusted. Those assumptions harm Nick as much as the myths he believes about rabbits hurt and infuriate Judy, and both of them spend the film taking steps to realize and correct those false beliefs that were ingrained in them since childhood. (That includes separate but mirrored child trauma, and those scenes are heartbreaking.)
As for the city itself, Zootopia dissolves into chaotic, reactionary racism when predators seem to revert to their “wild” natures and attack those classified as prey. The citizens aren’t evil, but they assume certain animals are predisposed to act certain ways, be ill-suited to certain things, and aren’t capable of achieving true equality. Everyone, except the villain (a corrupt government official in yet another issue relevant to today), is both victim and unknowing perpetrator of willful ignorance and systematic bigotry.
We don’t want to acknowledge these attitudes still exist in our modern world, even in the most seemingly idyllic society. But they do. They aren’t “in the past,” harmlessly forgotten. They must be confronted, loudly and clearly.
It may be aimed mainly at children (although we shouldn’t automatically limit the scope of kids’ movies), but Zootopia champions awareness, empathy, and intersectionality, with subtly layered characters, a sensitive touch, impeccable casting (Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, and Idris Elba are all outstanding), and masterful creativity. The visual gags are incredible, especially the invented architecture of a world where all animals are integrated. The sheer creativity boggles my mind. Because of course sloths run a DMV. Of course. That scene made me cry with laughter, as did an extended send-up of The Godfather with, wait for it — mobster rodents. There’s even clever Breaking Bad and Carrot, I mean, Apple references that feel delightful rather than forced or retroactively dated. Yet it never loses sight of its ultimate message of overcoming oppression, and that makes it storytelling at its best. With Zootopia following in the footsteps of Big Hero 6and Wreck-It-Ralph, Disney might be approaching a new renaissance. At the least, it now equals (even rivals) Pixar in its quality.
Discriminatory hatred can’t be allowed to win, and because it’s a Disney movie — spoilers — it doesn’t. Given the climate of today’s culture, we need that outlook. We need that hope, that truth. Even if it’s expressed through talking animals.