Fourteen animals are missing, and the Zootopia Police Department’s (ZPD) newest recruit is on the case. She is Judy Hopps, a rabbit who is doing what no rabbit has ever done before by crossing species lines to join the force. She’s smart. She’s idealistic. She’s indefatigable. She’s a cute, little bunny with something to prove. Oops. Sorry. I’m not suppose to call her cute, because “Bunnies can call each other ‘cute,’” as Hops tells a well-meaning co-worker early in Zootopia, “but other animals aren’t supposed to use that word.”
Yep, in addition to being an entertaining buddy cop mystery set in an all-mammal world, Zootopia is a clever kids movie about prejudice, the big and small ways it creeps into our society, and what we can do about it. Rather than drawing lines based on species, orientation, or creed, Zootopia paints broadly and explores the way all sorts of things the animals have no control over contribute to their ill-feelings toward each other. The chief dividing line in Zootopia is predator vs. prey, but size, place of origin, and common stereotypes play a role as well. This is a wise move on the filmmakers’ part, because it doesn’t allow for easy audience identification. In one scene, we might see ourselves as the victim. In the next, we’re the victimizer. We’re all capable of feeling prejudice and being prejudice against.
This is all breezily handled, too. Only during one sequence did I ever feel overly sad about what I was seeing. Now, you might think that I ought to have felt sadder more often considering the ways prejudice negatively impacts people in the real world, but the lightness of Zootopia creates an atmosphere in which I don’t mind staying for a while. I welcome the opportunity to consider how prejudice has affected my own life and how my own prejudices have affected others in such a warm and jovial environment. Zootopia makes it all seem fixable. It’s an optimistic film, and we need to believe change is possible if we’re ever going to effect positive change in the real world.
Zootopia is also a kid’s movie, so it’s entirely appropriate that the kind of prejudice that is common in our world should be presented in a way that kids can understand. Zootopia provides an easy metaphor for parents and children to use when talking about prejudice in much the same way that Inside Out provided a metaphorical language for parents and children to use when talking about emotions. Between Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and now Zootopia, Disney is doing some brilliant, societally-productive work right now.
That’s not to suggest that Zootopia thinks solving both societal and personal prejudices will be easy. On the contrary, the film knows that broad reconciliation of the sort its characters’ want will require great courage, mutual trust, and persistent forgiveness from everyone. (The film even includes a hilarious jab at the kind of children’s film that solves everything with a song and montage, specifically Disney’s own financial geyser Frozen.) Zootopia is no utopia, and it’s never going to be unless its characters are willing to take a chance on believing the best about each other, to be willing to fail, and then to keep on trying to treat each other as they themselves would like to be treated. Zootopia is a hopeful film with a realistic understanding of the difficult road before us. It believes the possible good is worth the risks. Zootopia may star a hare, but it has a tortoise’s understanding of what it will take to win the race.
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