animated films · animation · Disney

Disney’s modern day Aesop’s Fable: Zootopia (2016)

“It’s called a hustle, sweetheart.”

I gotta admit, the first teasers for Zootopia really underwhelmed me. I am fond of its director, Rich Moore, who was partly responsible for 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, which has been unfairly eclipsed by Frozen (2013). I barely paid any attention to the marketing, though it seemed clever enough, and I was almost sure it would be the first Disney feature I’d skip seeing in theaters. But luckily I didn’t, and I got to see what all the fuss was about. Because there was a great deal of fuss about this film, and it did end up breaking Frozen‘s box office record. My expectations were pretty reasonable, and Zootopia exceeded them.

The only review I read of the film prior was this great piece on Blavity, which focused on the film’s anti racism message. That made me sit up straighter in my seat. This film actually addresses racism? It’s common knowledge that Disney’s relationship with race is tenuous at best. What doesn’t seem to be common knowledge among the average viewer is that animation is an excellent medium to tackle complex issues. Just look at last year’s Inside Out. Or other features in Pixar’s library, along with Studio Ghibli, Laika, films distributed through GKids, and so forth. So I’m not remotely surprised that an animated film about talking animals could also be about racism and prejudice, and I’m definitely not surprised that the same team behind Ralph could pull it off. Disney has been in a second major renaissance since the early 2000s, and Zootopia just made them take off once more.

The basic premise of the film is a world without humans, where animals have since evolved to talk, walk on two legs, wear clothes, drive cars, use technology, and live in harmony as predators and prey. (I guess the carnivores are vegetarians too!)

In a small town called Bunnyburrow is Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a plucky little rabbit who dreams of being a police officer in the big city of Zootopia. Judy’s ambition is unwavering. It’s been her dream ever since she was a kid and standing up to bullies. But it’s not only the bullies that discourage her, her parents do as well. There’s never been a bunny cop, and according to them, not taking risks ensures a safe, happy, complacent life. But like all other two legged Disney heroes and heroines before her, Judy will not settle for the status quo, which in her case, is selling carrots on the family farm.

We follow Judy to police academy, where she has to train twice as hard as anybody else owing to her diminutive size. But ambition blazes within her and she passes at the top of her class. Zootopia’s Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons) is present at the graduation ceremony and announces that she’s going to be the first rabbit on the city’s police force. But when she arrives on her first day of work, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) sticks her with writing tickets. Undeterred, she sets out to be the best meter maid and ends up giving out 201 tickets before noon. But the lack of actual police work takes its toll, leaving her frustrated, lonely, and bored.

She volunteers to find Emmett Otterton, one of 14 predators within the city who has mysteriously disappeared. Chief Bogo, who hasn’t been impressed with her top performance at the academy, treats her disdainfully on her first day. But after she promises Mrs. Otterton (Octavia Spencer) that she’ll locate her husband, Bogo is incensed. He offers her an ultimatum: if she doesn’t find Emmett in 48 hours, she’ll have to hand over her badge. Judy agrees and sets out immediately.

As you undoubtedly saw from the trailers, this is a buddy movie with two unlikely buddies. Historically, rabbits and foxes are natural enemies. Although predators and prey peacefully coexist in this world, there are some lingering prejudices. Judy’s reluctant partner that she tricks into helping her is sly, smirking, smooth talking fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). Their initial dislike of each other gradually turns into begrudging mutual respect and admiration before they become friends. But even before that, they have to crack the case, which has become much more complicated and sinister.

Something is happening to the predator population. They’re turning “savage”, reverting back to those pre-evolutionary biological instincts. Although bigotry was touched upon early in the film, this is where the message is most potent. Zootopia is still a film about talking animals, so the execution is not entirely without flaws. Most of the real world equivalents seem to be the micro aggressions that black people encounter every day, although there is one instance of xenophobia/anti immigration. Predators and prey hold positions of power and influence, but there isn’t a single dominant group. I do think the film can still be read as a challenge to white supremacy. I’m going to attempt to explain how I understood the racism within the film.

Predator and prey are the two groups. Within each group are different species that can be stereotyped in a multitude of ways. For example, in our human world, Asians experience racism and micro aggressions that differ across racial and ethnic lines. East Asians are stereotyped in certain ways while South Asians experience other forms of racism and prejudice. The same is true for Latinos, Middle Eastern people, black Americans, and black Africans. And that’s to say nothing of religion, gender, and class based discrimination. In Zootopia, animals have their preconceived notions about species in the predator group and species in the prey group. It’s not the most sophisticated metaphor on social issues, but it is a thoughtful, timely, and clever one. This is Disney’s modern day Aesop’s fable which is accessible to children. They might not be able to define micro aggressions, but they can understand the kind of damage that’s inflicted when you judge others prematurely.

The film is definitely exceptional for its reflection on these issues which occur in secret and out in the open. It’s a topical film with plenty of pop culture references and pop music, culminating in a concert with superstar Gazelle (!), voiced by Shakira and which includes her backup tiger dancers. A lot of it is wacky without losing any of its enormous heart. Add to that the gorgeous character designs, setting, and cinematography (seriously, animated films get little to no recognition on the latter) and it’s a winning formula.

Judy Hopps is pleasantly romance free, pursuing her goal with abundant optimism. How many films exist for young girls who dream about having a career and doing everything in their power to make it so? That’s where I’m at in life, as are the female characters that I write. And Judy is also amazing because she has flaws, makes mistakes, and owns up to them. “I don’t know when to quit!” That quote should be on all Judy shirts in Disney stores. Nick Wilde is great too. Learning more about him allows both Judy and the audience to peel back that cynical exterior and find a good heart. Their eventual friendship is not only heartwarming but realistic.

Zootopia is what happens when Disney Animation simultaneously honors and departs from its legacy. This isn’t a musical with singing princesses and animals (but those are good), or dying parents (phew). But it is a film that tugs at your heartstrings while making you roar with laughter. And it imparts that timeless Disney lesson of persevering no matter what with some new wisdom added for good measure.

“The world has always been broken.”

It’s really unlike anything we’ve seen before, and signals plenty more great things to come.

PS: It was also definitely about the war on drugs.

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