When I first saw Disney’s latest animated film, “Zootopia,” I didn’t know what I was getting into. The teaser trailers that I’d seen for it had ranged from mildly intriguing to amusing in a painful sort of way. I expected a cute animal film with slapstick for the kids, some sneaky jokes for the adults, and, hopefully, a decent female lead.
I didn’t expect to fall in love, drag my mom along with me to see it again, and to think about little else than this film for a week and counting.
Let me be frank, don’t watch the trailers because they don’t tell the truth. Don’t read the reviews, because they’ll spoil everything. Go see “Zootopia” because it is a great film. I would even call it an important film.
Let me now try to talk about the film and what makes it great without spoiling too much.
Is “Zootopia” perfect? Of course it's not. I could critique this film for lots of things that it isn’t. It isn’t a film with an abundance of major female characters (although its protagonist, Judy Hopps, is an excellent, well-rounded, and relatable woman). It isn’t a film that really represents racial or ethnic minorities (a mostly white cast voicing many different kinds of animals is still a mostly white cast). It isn’t a film that breaks new ground in regards to storytelling or plot twists and it isn’t particularly well-paced.
What “Zootopia” is, however, is a brilliant and valuable allegory for real-world prejudice and discrimination.
The mammals living in the titular city of Zootopia, while undeniably non-human in appearance, are morally human to an uncomfortable extent. This film doesn’t show us a clear-cut universe where only villains hate and hurt others and where only heroes love and help others. This film doesn’t show us a society with no overlap between the one group that is the oppressor and the other group that is the victim. "Zootopia’s" animal world parallels the real world by depicting both overt discrimination and internalized prejudice more accurately than many adult films.
Zootopia is ostensibly a city where predators and prey live in harmony, having set aside their primitive conflicts and formed a society in which “anyone can be anything.” However, in practice, life isn’t so rosy. No one, protagonist or antagonist, can escape being judged based on the stereotypes that are associated with their species. Bunnies are seen as too cute and fragile to be cops. Foxes are seen as too sly and untrustworthy to be friends. No one, even characters who have spent their whole lives fighting against judgments against their species, is free from their internalized prejudices against other species. In one scene, one police officer scolds another for allegedly seeing all predators as “savage” and then immediately refuses to listen to the testimony of a fox because of their stereotype of untrustworthiness. This film is full of examples of both microaggressions (referring to prey as “cute” and complimenting predators on being “articulate” are both portrayed as offensive and patronizing) and blatant discrimination (an elephant ice cream parlor has a policy reserving the right to refuse service to non-elephants and a young predator is beaten up and muzzled by his prey peers). While the people have fur and tails, the world and its problems feel real because these are the kind of problems that we face in the real world, both from other people and from ourselves.
There’s no doubt in my mind that, 50 years from now, “Zootopia” will be considered a classic Disney film. Much sooner than that, parents will use this film as an entryway to talking about the uncomfortable issue of how discrimination still exists in a society that prides itself on freedom and equality and about how, through self-awareness and care, we can recognize and combat that discrimination.