Walt Disney Animation Studio’s is revolutionizing the way we connect to social justice issues with their latest release, “Zootopia” directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush. The film showcases discrimination, oppression, and injustice through a creative tone that general audiences will find both compelling and eye-opening. The story focuses on Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny who achieves her dream of leaving the carrot farm to be a cop in the big city. When she gets her first assignment as an officer she learns that the city wasn’t all she hoped it to be.
Thankfully, she doesn’t have to face the shocking new experience alone. Hopps befriends Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a cunning fox who survives by being a con artist, and relies on his support throughout her struggles.
Specifically, Wilde helps Hopps to take on a larger case than she ever imagined, and ultimately finds that the big city is full of lies, greed, and corruption.
Through her investigations, Hopps learns that corruption has caused many predator species to “go savage” for no apparent reason.
As she digs deeper into the reason for these erratic violence behaviors, Hopps uncovers secrets about the inner-workings of Zootopia’s local government. The film shifts focus from the dreams of a single bunny to the experiences of an entire city divided by their differences.
The storytelling offers a fresh take on anthropomorphic animals. These creatures have evolved to live a life that is nearly identical to modern humans.
Not coexisting with modern humans or using their voices in the wild, but rather living an autonomous existence in a world without humans. Typically, this has not been the case in films featuring talking animals.
Yet the magic of Disney scenery and animation allows viewers to accept this reality as alternate to our own, observing a universe without humanity.
As a result, the audience is initially suspended in a nonexistent spectator state, able to freely understand the strange confines of reality that the film constructs.
We can juxtapose these two worlds or simply enjoy the one set in front of us. Initially, it’s easier to choose the latter. But once the potent themes start to shine through each event, audiences are drawn into the almost eerie comparisons.
At the start of the film, Hopps’ parents aren’t supportive of her police officer dreams and instead suggest she be a farmer like the rest of the family.
Although the audience will feel some sense of remorse for her predicament, it’s easy to nod in agreement — a bunny rabbit can’t be a police officer, they’re too small and defenseless! But when she decides she will prove the others wrong, it’s a simple transition to unconditional belief. This is a children’s movie, you think, and that’s why she is going to achieve her dreams.
Anyone over the age of ten will be pleased to learn that the feel-good “believe in your dreams” message isn’t handed to audiences on a silver platter. Instead, Hopps’ world is filled with grim realities that humans face daily.
Issues such as discrimination and corruption are brought to the surface in very real ways, but the aforementioned observer perspective creates an interesting dynamic for the audience. When viewers are met with human examples of dark concepts, we tend to shy away. Those who are not engaged in the topic already will turn a blind eye or feel personally attacked.
It’s difficult for a white man to watch “Roots” and confront the facts of historical enslavement. In a very different way, a black man might find it too painful to watch those experiences on screen. And, hopefully, no one is sitting their six year old down in front of the TV and asking them to comprehend those weighty themes.
But when the issues involve rabbits, foxes, tigers, and otters they are suddenly within reach. It’s not about you and me; it’s about the inhabitants of Zootopia and the surrounding regions.
It’s about the systems of inequality and injustice that are perpetuated in the largest and smallest ways, all of which combine to create a compelling story.
Without fully realizing it, audiences will begin to examine differences through the relationships of Hopps and Wilde.
Their slight discomfort with a fox and a rabbit forming a friendship will coexist with their uncertainty about a cop and a criminal spending so much time in the same vicinity.
Some will take note of the “fox spray” Hopps carries, while others will wonder how Wilde plans to take advantage of the well-meaning cop in more dangerous ways. Suddenly, this fictional land brings out the biases in every viewer.
The defining moment of the film is a potent scene depicting prejudice in an everyday context. When anti-predator sentiments are at their peak, a bunny and her son are sitting on the train when a tiger sits beside them. In a moment of shocked fear and disgust, the mother pulls her child in closer, ensuring he doesn’t get too close to the possible savage.
It’s a scene that feels all-too common in a world where first judgments are based on outward appearance and stereotypes.
This is significant because it depicts animals acting humanistic, which turns our expectations on its head, allowing us to feel ashamed of the times we have been that bunny mother.
That’s a reaction rarely cultivated by a movie intended for audiences of all ages, let alone an animated Disney film.
The timing of this release feels almost prophetic. Overstated? Yes. Out of the question? I don’t think so.
History books will reflect on this era as one that challenged prejudice, while simultaneously lifting up a United States presidential candidate known for his no-nonsense dislike for certain groups.
When Assistant Mayor Bellwether (Jane Slate) grimly claims, “Fear always works,” I swear her sheep wool became a toupee and her once oppressed status was lifted up — almost like there’s a Bellwether Tower looming over Chicago. Again, the distant position of the audience is used to compare this alternate universe to our own, giving us a direct connection without forcing us to immediately confront these injustices on a personal level.
Without spoiling too much more of the film, I can assure you that the conclusion is not the color-blind, “we’re all animals,” “we’re all one” clichés that overrun children’s movies and essentially erase the diversity of our world.
Instead, it implores viewers to ultimately see where they can connect with the universe of “Zootopia” and analyze where the messages interact with their own reality and the reality of those around them.
It’s not clear-cut, and viewers will find themselves identifying different human comparisons for each character and instance. Such calculated ambiguity makes the film a relatable discussion starter for people of any walk of life.
After all, unless you’re a fox or a bunny you’ll be initially impartial to the outcomes. But unless you’re living under a rock, you’ll immediately start to draw lines of comparison.