Whether animated or Homeward Bound style, everyone has loved watching talking animals at one point in their life, but this has little to do with why you should see Disney’s latest. Zootopia accomplished something that made this definitely much older than six-year-old writer feel justified in going to see it alone.
Someone at Disney must have been tired of reading about their company’s less than racially sensitive past. I’m not just talking about the offensive crows in Dumbo, or the even more in your face disrespect to Native Americans in Peter Pan. I’m talking about the subtle touches of making their villains visibly darker than their protagonists even in their modern movies. This has occurred as recently as 2010’s Tangled. With Zootopia, Disney just took a step in the right direction by doing one of the most thoughtful meditations on acceptance.
Gone are the days of The Lion King where the Hyenas were the surrogate dangerous “them,” and the audience was made to feel like their menace and evil was an absolute. Zootopia deals in nuanced allegory and that’s refreshing.
With a simple concept of predators and prey trying to coexist comfortably after the two were integrated, there’s a lot of room for interpretation. There is no hard and fast way to decipher who exactly is being oppressed/villainized in this movie. That’s part of the charm. The eternally optimistic rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin, Big Love, Once Upon a Time) feels like a voice for women who have been marginalized. However, the movie leaves room for other communities to see their struggles displayed here.
My entry point was crystallized in Nick Wilde (Jason Batmen, Arrested Development, Horrible Bosses), a fox who has to reluctantly work with Judy, creating a fun Eddie Murphy buddy cop flick vibe. He’s a predator who was never given a chance to be anything other than saddled with stereotypes of what predators should be.
Being a black male who grew up in predominantly white settings made it easier for some of the points made in this movie to hit home. Like Nick, I would get backhanded compliments about how well-spoken I was or how I was different from the other black people. The implication being that normally black people are uneducated and somehow inaccessible. The interactions between Judy, the Prey, and Nick, the predator reminded me of how not every instance of prejudice is made obvious with antagonistic aggression.
Before Nick and Judy meet there’s a scene where Judy’s parents (voiced by Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake) prepare her for the eventual run-ins she’ll have with predators like Nick in the big city as a new recruit on the police force. The scene is important since the audience knows that Judy was attacked by a predator and has good reason to be afraid of predators. However, it is also a representation of one generation trying to pass on their prejudice to a younger generation while trying to be open minded.
Instead of making it seem like people either accept each other or they don’t, the movie uses Nick and Judy’s relationship to show that a lot of work goes into looking past stereotypes and creating a real relationship with someone based on their actions as opposed to pre-conceived notions. Judy considers herself open minded and a champion of the integration of predators and prey but, when it comes down to it, even she can’t help but fall into the trap of relying on stereotypes when dealing with Nick.
There’s no black and white, as Disney is operating in a grey area for the first time. Just because Judy is guilty of being prejudice, doesn’t mean she’s not facing her own prejudices in her journey to become a respected member of the police force in Zootopia. The movie, for the most part, uses well rounded characters who have flaws and a right to feel persecuted. Just because a character like Judy is feeling oppressed on the police force, doesn’t mean she can’t be portrayed as insensitive to predators like Nick as well.
*CAUTION, SPOILERS AHEAD!*
When the movie finally reveals the true villain of the story, it may take some viewers by surprise. Deputy Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate, Parks and Recreation, Obvious Child), a sheep, has been plotting to rid the city of predators- who we also find out are the minority in Zootopia-by making sure all the terrible stereotypes about how they can’t help but be savage are put on display for the world. Given the way we see how some politicians try to win votes, Zootopia again reflects our own uncomfortable realities.
You don’t have to be a visible minority to see the connection to contemporary examples like Trump who use fear mongering to get votes and consolidate political power, but it feels that much further from fiction if you are. I don’t know what kids will ultimately take away from this movie or that most adults will see what I saw, but Zootopia is a deceivingly sophisticated allegory on race relations wrapped inside an entertaining kids film, and the filmmakers deserve all the credit for pulling off this high wire act.