Zootopia uses metaphors in an imaginary world to explain real problems
The buzz behind Disney's newest animated film Zootopia before its release on March 4 was much less loud than Disney is used to. The trailers set up a world where animals have evolved to be sentient and civilized, living amongst each other peacefully, and an unlikely pair — bunny and fox — have to solve a mystery. Would it be a buddy cop movie? A kid-sized procedural a la Law & Order? Or a 90-minute excuse for Disney to use all of the cliched animal puns it's gathered over the years? After watching Zootopia, however, the answer becomes entirely clear. While it is all of the above, it also happens to be so much more.
Rabbit police officer Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, must team up with fox con artist Nick Wilde, voiced by Jason Bateman, to solve a missing otter case. In the process, they stumble onto a larger conspiracy that could threaten the peace of the animal world.
The first 10 minutes of Zootopia is dedicated to exposition. A flashback to Judy as a child shows her participating in a school play with her classmates, explaining that a long time ago animals were savage and predators and prey were tireless enemies. But now animals are civilized: they wear clothes, they go to work, they use smartphones, and, most importantly, they live in a world where any animal can grow up to be whatever they want to be.
Judy, a rabbit, daughter to rabbit farmers, proclaims that she wants to be a cop in the big city. She is quickly shot down because she is a bunny, and the police have never had bunnies on the force before. This, the world of Zootopia, is not completely unlike our own. Equal opportunity is more theoretical than practical and the idea that anyone can be anything is much more complicated than our childhood dreams.
It is clear that Byron Howard and Rich Moore, the directors of this film, had two goals in mind when creating this film. They wanted to create an entertaining, wildly spinning adventure through a tightly crafted and richly rendered world. They also wanted to introduce kids and possibly re-introduce adults to an approachable vocabulary about racism in our country. Similarly to how Disney Pixar’s film [ITAL]Inside Out[ITAL] used metaphors to personify emotions and humanize the world of mental health, Zootopia uses the dynamic of predator and prey to comment on topics that have dominated the media in the wake of movements like #BlackLivesMatter, which was created to address the racism still pervasive in a society that often claims to be "post-racial."
The film shows examples of racism, bias, stereotyping, cultural appropriation, microaggressions, white supremacy, and tokenism. At the same time, it only barely hints at any direct correlation for racism in our own world. In one scene, Judy informs her cheetah co-worker Clawhauser that the word “cute” is only okay when bunnies say it to each other, but not so much when other animals say it. This is a clear example of cultural appropriation and it mimics our own discussion of who can say certain words in our culture. At the same time, Nick the fox is instantly accosted when he enters a store because the store owner believes that he will steal something, a story ripped straight from the experience of many young black men and women. The situations are handled incredibly well, and the audience gets what’s happening without feeling like they are being preached to.
Not only is [ITAL]Zootopia[ITAL]'s content meaningful and introspective, it is also delivered in one of the most enjoyable packages I’ve experienced in animation in the last few years. The script is rife with the aforementioned animal puns. At one point, Chief Bogo, a buffalo voiced by Idris Elba, starts a meeting by “addressing the elephant in the room,” at which point the camera reveals an actual elephant who’s celebrating her birthday. The rye humor of filling the DMV with sloths is definitely not lost for any adult who’s had to block out an entire day in order to get their license renewed. The film is also gorgeously animated, painting varying landscapes like dark rain forests and scorching deserts in equally impressive detail. Each animal has an extremely wide range of emotions unique to their body (Judy’s ears clue us into her emotional state as much as her words do), and this is only improved by the star-studded voice cast.
Zootopia is an important film, and an incredibly fun and moving piece of cinematic animation. It shows that while it may not be the easiest to break down important concepts such as inequality and bias for such a young audience, it’s an endeavor worth pursuing if we want our society to truly be one in which everyone is afforded the same opportunities.