March 09, 2016
Family Film Blogging: Zootopia
Posted by Christine Hurt

Not to get political, but if you need a refreshing break from the election season, Disney's Zootopia could not have come at a better time.  To be honest, most kids' movies these days have a theme of tolerance and acceptance -- our hero may be negatively stereotyped, but (almost always) he has unique gifts and talents.  (The Shrek franchise, the Ice Age franchise, Monsters UniversityRatatouilleHarry Potter franchise, Wreck-It Ralph, etc.)  But Zootopia takes it a few steps further and tells a much more nuanced and complex story of living in a diverse world.  Only Disney can make an animated feature about a bunny into a lesson about not only bigotry but tokenism, reverse discrimination, diversity and affirmative action.  (Sounds crazy, but it works.)

OK, here goes.  At the beginning of the movie, we are told that the mammal world at one time was separated into predators and prey.  These categories roughly map on to carnivores and herbivores, though we could quibble.  However, mammals evolved and so now have transcended those primitive instincts.  Now, mammals can live together in almost harmony in Zootopia (and wear clothing, walk upright and have opposable thumbs.)  Zootopia is divided into small contiguous ecosystems (tundra, rain forest, etc.) with a central government.  There are only mammals here.  I did see a sign for a fish restaurant, so mammal citizens must still eat fish when so inclined.  (Pretty much the only other things you see the mammals eat are doughnuts, carrots, cake, popsicles and ice cream.)  I guess even Disney couldn't have designed one city for mammals, birds, fish and insects to live in harmony.   At the time of most of the action, the mayor of Zootopia (Leodore Lionheart, so yes, a lion) has launched a "mammal inclusion" campaign.  Good thing, too, because a bunny named Judy Hopps wants to be a police officer.  She gets into the police academy and after a struggle, graduates first in her class, the first bunny to do so (no one says "rabbit," just "bunny.").  Her parents on the carrot farm are very anxious for her to go to the big city and fight crime, but Judy is determined.  Though she is applauded as the first bunny to be a police officer, she faces more subtle (or not-so-subtle) discrimination on the force.  The police chief Chief Bogo (a cape buffalo) basically ignores her and sends her off to be a meter maid.

And here is where the simple "predators rule, prey drool" dichotomy becomes more complex.  I can only think this is intended.  Buffaloes are more prey than predator, as are elephants, rhinos and hippos.  But these megafauna have a lot of power and clout on the force and throughout Zootopia.  In one scene, we see an elephant store owner refusing to serve a fox.  So some of the stereotyping in Zootopia has to do with predator v. prey, but there are different prejudices as well.  Nick Wilde, a fox, has been discriminated in his life and accused of being sneaky.  So, he has become a hustler.  Prey like rabbit fear predators, particularly foxes, and predators think prey are "cute."  (There is a funny scene in which Judy tells a cheetah that bunnies can call each other "cute," but other species can't call them "cute.")

Back to Judy the meter maid.  Fourteen citizens, all predators, have gone missing, and the police force seem incapable of finding them.  Judy hears Chief Bogo brushing off Mrs. Weaselton's concerns about her missing husband, and Judy intervenes.  (Again, Chief Bogo seems to be less concerned about the smaller weasel, and yes, Weaselton is an "easter egg" homage to Frozen.)  Bogo gives Judy 48 hours to find Weaselton or she must resign.  Because she is unable to get help from within the force, she turns to Nick Wilde to help her figure out the mystery.  The ensuing 48 hours uncover a Sherlock Holmes-like plot that will remind adults of modern-day news items of false accusations of bigotry in the name of pushing debate, racial profiling, and more.

Of course, it is a Disney movie, so happiness and inclusion will reign in the end.  But Judy sums things up nicely at the end, noting that all animals will make mistakes and that real life is really, really messy.  Though the film doesn't have catchy Disney songs or princesses, I consider it one of the great modern Disney movies, like Big Hero 6 or Wreck-It Ralph.

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