Disney tackles prejudice and discrimination in Zootopia, one of the studio’s finest films to date

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No group should be stereotyped based on the actions of a few. That seems self-evident, but when a major candidate for president recommends we respond to isolated acts of terror by banning muslims from entering the country, it’s an idea that bears repeating. Disney thought so too, as their brilliant new film Zootopia tackles issues of racism, sexism, and xenophobia head on, using cute animals to make the point easier to swallow. The result is one of the studio’s finest productions to date, a near-perfect mix of comedy, adventure, and allegory. Some good ol’ fashion sloth humor certainly doesn’t hurt, either.

Zootopia takes place in a world where anthropomorphized animals live side-by-side in a fully developed, modern city. Both prey and predator have forgotten their differences and are able to get along, and the universe of Zootopia is essentially an exact replica of our universe, just swapping out humans for various animal species. Judy Hopps, a bunny, moves to the big city in pursuit of a career as a police officer, and she views Zootopia as a beautiful melting pot of varied cultures, where anyone can be anything.

But she quickly finds that it isn’t quite the paradise she had in mind, and the film’s commentary on racism and sexism immediately kicks in. Foxes are looked at with a suspicious eye due to the stereotype that they’re all sly criminals. In fact, it later becomes a common belief that the species is predisposed to act less civilized because of their biology, which calls to mind the phony science of phrenology used to justify slavery in the 1800s. Meanwhile, bunnies are generally treated with condescension, undermining Judy’s attempts to be seen as a dignified officer of the law. Referring to a rabbit as “cute” becomes the equivalent of a racial slur. Here, Disney examines sexism, as Judy desperately wants to be taken seriously, but she is seen as weak and inferior based on an aspect of herself that she cannot control. Sound familiar? 

And those are just the problems our two main characters face. As you can imagine, despite its tremendous diversity, Zootopia is a highly flawed society. Creatures fear those who are different than them. They discriminate and judge, and not always out of pure malice. It simply has become such a deeply ingrained part of how they see the world that it’s hard to abandon harmful notions, to the point that Judy grows up being taught that she should fear foxes. Not some foxes, but foxes in general. Prejudicial ideas extend into government policies that ruin lives but that make the majority feel safe as they wall themselves off from the insidious “other.”

It’s easy to interpret Zootopia as a reflection our country’s unfortunate past, such as in a key scene where Nick is denied service at an ice cream parlor whose owner distrusts foxes. This is a clear stand in for segregation, a wrong we have thankfully righted. But as the movie implies, we are still far from being a completely humane nation. One development late in the film – and I will be vague as to avoid spoilers – involves one of Zootopia’s minorities being targeted because select members of that community have acted violently. They should be feared, imprisoned, and banished from the city in response to horrifying crimes. Hmm, innocent individuals are being treated unfairly because a few bad apples happen to look like them? And those in positions of power are calling for civilians to be exiled? Where ever have we heard that before?

Zootopia has been in production for years, and so it clearly is not a specific response to the Islamophobia fueled by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign over the past few months. But sadly, the story could be told during practically any time period and it would be seen as shockingly relevant to the issues of the day.

Release it in the early 20th century and, aside from audiences being confused about what computer animation is, it would be taken as a criticism of looking down upon black people because of the color of their skin. Release it a few decades later and perhaps it is now read as an allegory for sexism, all about how women are assigned roles from birth that make it difficult to live with the same ease their male counterparts do. A decade ago, it might apply to widespread homophobia. Now, it seems most analogous to rampant Islamaphobia, but that’s the point: There is not one clear parallel. Zootopia is about the fact that humanity as a whole has a regrettable tendency to vilify any minority group because of our fear of the unknown.

Even the act of Judy moving to Zootopia is similar to an immigrant coming to America. She arrives to a new world because she is inspired by its principles of diversity, a place where all cultures live together in peace. Unfortunately, both Zootopia and America have not yet reached that idealistic goal.

But we’re moving in the right direction, and so is the city of Zootopia. There’s a great scene in which Judy’s parents, who previously saw foxes as inherently dangerous creatures, now employ a fox at their place of business without much pause. They have evolved and changed their beliefs about a faction they once feared, learning to assess each individual on his or her own merits, and not based on race, sex, religion, or, in this case, species.

What a tremendous lesson to impart upon kids, and it all comes across naturally without feeling forced or overly complicated. Just as Pixar’s Inside Out allows parents and kids to discuss the complex nature of the human mind, Zootopia opens the door to a conversation about the importance of diversity and the evils of bigotry. The movie suggests that you can be whoever you want to be, regardless of racial prejudices or gender norms, and you must not allow stereotypes to define you. For adults, it’s a reminder to keep applying these lessons to our day-to-day lives, recognizing and dispelling hateful views and working together to finally, one day, create a truly tolerant society.

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