Zootopia is brimming with social commentary, racial subtext being a primary component to the development of its characters. Its protagonist, Judy, is a rabbit who despite her unmatched abilities as a police officer faces discrimination at the hands of her senior officer Chief Bogo, a cape buffalo, who assigns her parking duty on her first day. Judy’s meeting with the second protagonist, a hustling fox named Nick, is no coincidence. She observes him, a suspicion conceived from a deep-rooted prejudice for his species and as a result of some bad blood in her own personal history. The film makes no attempts at trying to be subtle, it begins with a speech from a young, hopeful Judy who delivers an optimistic, encouraging rhetoric about the future of diversity, and it ends with an equally optimistic, but a more somber, peroration on the mentality of intolerance. It’s a bold direction for Disney whose recent output, while impressive, have never been this socially relevant [spoilers to follow].
One of the oldest concepts of Disney are the anthropomorphizing of animals. It’s a cute novelty that bodes well with children, and their appeal isn’t lost in adults either. However, no previous film – to the best of my knowledge – applies it the way Zootopia does. It’s not a black-and-white world with unjust hierarchical systems and societal oppression, instead predators and prey coexist in a functioning egalitarian society. It’s an ecosystem where every animal has a part to play, the only problem is that each animal seems biologically predetermined to play a certain part. Judy is disregarded and ridiculed for the part she plays; a police officer. To be fair, she is never flat out denied her role as a police officer, she graduates from the academy with flying colours and she’s given work in a top precinct. Her inhibitions as a police officer instead seem to be sown by internal doubt, manufactured by societal expectations.
Such expectations are exactly why the other protagonist Nick, the fox, resigns himself to the sordid work of street hustling. He is fuelled by the notion that if being a fox comes with natural prejudices, then his only option is to play that part. It’s a sullen, pessimistic response, one that’s contradictory to Judy, but a consequence of a reality they both share. The motif here is that appearances don’t define who you are. It certainly doesn’t define a tiny arctic shrew, ironically named Mr. Big, described as the most dangerous crime boss in Zootopia, or Flash, a street racing three-toed sloth. Zootopia is Disney at their most mature, it’s not merely a satire on racial bigotry but a parable on identity. More impressive is that these themes aren’t resigned to the tragic determinism of its heroes, but to its villain as well.
By this point, calling Disney formulaic is a redundancy, almost irrelevant as a form criticism. Every Disney film thus far has been complacent in the use of their formula, the only thing that prevents it from completely collapsing in on itself are the different interpretations of said formula. The subversion of the classic Disney characteristics seems to be a popular one. One of which is to take a benign, relatively unassuming character and turn them to the film’s villain. Zootopia seems to tackle this idea more ambitiously, that is to say, it opts for less for shock value, more for dramatic storytelling. Here, the villain turns out to be a Dawn, a sheep who works as assistant mayor and acted as something of a confidante to Judy throughout the film. It’s both a funny and sad revelation.
Dawn is a sheep, the very word ‘sheep’ holds a pejorative undertone, akin to conformity, and therefore lack of an identity. Her villainous turn in the film is nothing short of poetic justice. In the film, she never really stands out, which is a strong point the film is trying to make. By making her a victim of the same environment that has profoundly affected our heroes, the film has indirectly made Dawn a sympathetic character, if a somewhat deplorable one as well. Disney has always made it easy for audiences to respond to the motives of villains because there’s always a clear distinction between them and the heroes. In Zootopia both its hero and villain find a middle ground, both Dawn and Judy come from the same place. Despite their gaping differences in outcome, both are byproducts of the same society.
Disney films can be smart, they can be subversive and with Zootopia they can be progressive. It’s not a success because it simply espouses social truths, but by how it employs these truths. Zootopia has perhaps Disney’s most dexterous narrative to date. It creates meaningful and deeply personal story through its critiques of broad, impersonal themes of racial profiling, segregation and conformity. And beyond the obvious metaphors and allusions to contemporary issues, Zootopia is a thorough study on how relationships are created. How societal values are not exclusive to individuals, but mutual to every citizen. Look at what Zootopia is trying to say about its two protagonists. Nick and Judy have an ironic friendship, the species they represent are natural enemies, predator and prey.
Zootopia isn’t a topic of the week or an event movie, it’s an intelligent criticism on society. It infers how society naturally fragments itself, how class prejudice still thrives, and how different cultures feel like a different species. It’s not so much that we the humans are being compared to animals in Zootopia, instead the film seems to want us to look at the animals as a reflection of us.