I’m a 90’s baby so it’s basically a given that Disney movies were a major key to my upbringing. Pocahontas, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Mulan were my faves. Looking back, certain aspects of these movies were definitely problematic. It seems Disney is out to make their past wrongs right with the release of the new animated film Zootopia. The children’s film is packed with underlying social messages about stereotypes, biases, marginalized minorities and why it's never OK to touch a Black woman's hair. (Seriously!)
The plot of Zootopia is simple enough: an optimistic rookie cop from the country is determined to prove herself in the big city. The rookie in question is actually a bunny named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and the world in which Zootopia takes place looks fairly similar to 2016 America, fancy smartphones included.
Zootopia opens with a play put on by a young Judy. She explains the evolution of animals and how civilized and peaceful they have become. She idealizes Zootopia, a nearby metropolis filled with all kinds of mammals, living in harmony. Judy also shares her aspirations to be the city's first bunny cop when she grows up. Her parents are small town folks and encourage her to follow the traditional path of bunnies and become a carrot farmer. She is even bullied by a fox who mocks her dreams. Still, Judy never waivers in her goal to become a police officer.
Resilient and ever optimistic, Judy grows up and takes advantage of the "Mammal Outreach" program. Despite her small stature and her assumed physical limitations, Judy graduates from the police academy at the top of her class. As a traditionally preyed-upon animal, Judy is the minority in a field dominated by predators. Although she comes to work fully prepared to make a difference, she is given the lackluster position of a meter maid. By the end of her first day, it’s clear that her role on the force is a mere show of inclusion and not an actual effort to fully utilize her talents.
Judy seems especially enlightened when it comes to social justice and is quick to call out others for their faux pas. Her parents warn her about foxes and her father even encourages her to carry a fox repellent. Judy counter argues their sentiment when she points out that not all foxes are jerks and that she’s meant plenty of bunnies who are. When an animal calls her "cute", Judy gently tells him that "cute" is only a term other bunnies can call each other. And when another animal touches a sheep’s fluffy 'do, Judy reprimands him. "You can't just touch a sheep's wool!"
Zooptia is not the animal utopia Judy had always imagined it to be. There is a clear divide between the predators and the preys, which becomes all the more evident when Judy meets Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox. Nick is denied service in an ice cream shop run by elephants. The owner asks Nick if he doesn’t have ice cream shops on “his side of town” then straight up tells him to get lost! Judy calls the owner out for his prejudice and convinces him to sell ice cream to Nick.
Despite the rising tension between the predators and the preys, it is difficult to distinguish the victims from the oppressors. Just when you think you’ve figured out the social dynamics of Zootopia, everything shifts. Although Judy has good intentions, her own biases get in the way of her attempts to make the community better. After meeting Nick, she attempts to compliment him by telling him how “articulate” he is. (Major side-eye.) When Judy solves a big case and has to make a public statement, she further spreads harmful sterotypes about a group of animals. Her statements cause citywide panic and further division among the mammals, complete with protests! Things got really deep when Judy gives up her position on the police force for fear that she has not done her job of serving and protecting.
The most emotional part of Zootopia is when Nick shares his memory of wanting to be in a Scouts group as a child. When he goes to what he believes to be the initiation, he is a teased by a group of animals who laugh at the thought of a fox joining their group. They instead place a muzzle over his face and he runs out of the building in tears. At that moment, a small child in the movie theater shouted out, “Why?”
It served as my comic relief but also made me wonder... Millions of people have already seen Zootopia and its safe to say that millions who have yet to see it, eventually will. While it’s the not the manifesto of racial equality, it's safe to say that Zootopia is a great starting point for a larger conversation among all ages.