Stories are often a reflection of reality. Star Wars was a reflection of the existential threat posed by the Cold War. The Hurt Locker was, quite obviously, a discussion of the human cost of war. The Revenant reflected Leonardo DiCaprio’s all-consuming want for an Oscar.
And then there’s Zootopia. Which holds an unrelenting, condemning-yet-hopeful mirror to modern America. Which you wouldn’t exactly expect, because it’s a major Disney movie. Nonetheless, couched in this story of bunny cops is an incredible exploration of prejudice that your ‘deep’ friend on Facebook wishes they could have written as a status.
In Zootopia, anthropomorphic animals live in a city. But unlike any other story about anthropomorphic animals, the fact that they are animals is actually a big deal. A rabbit (like the protagonist) is tiny and water buffalos are massive. Foxes are predators, and sheep are prey. With these differences comes the logical divides and ostracizing; prey think predators are dangerous, and big animals discount the efforts of smaller ones.
The movie seems to have some very simple analogues. Judy is a rabbit and the first rabbit on Zootopia’s police force which leads to some dismissing her joining the team as just the diversity initiative paying off. So right off the bat the movie seems posed to position Judy as the Other. She, because she's a rabbit, is bullied and downtrodden on by other animals. The arc for the story seems clear enough: Judy will have to overcome the prejudice against her species and prove that she's as good a cop as anyone else. So like that Jackie Robinson movie no one saw, but with a bunny cop instead of a black baseball player.
The movie could have built the whole thing around that premise and we'd have gotten another movie about overcoming adversity and all that. Done deal. Nothing wrong there.
But Zootopia goes further.
When preparing to move to the titular city, Judy is warned by her parents to be careful of 'those people,' in particular foxes. She pushes back, but it's made clear that prey too hold prejudices against predators. Especially foxes who are in general seen as being sly and dishonest. The general consensus on foxes is that they’re, for the most part, a bunch of good-for-nothing louts. Something Judy’s pretty sure she disagrees with.
Now hold on, you (like me), may be thinking. The simple analogy of Zootopia is starting to break down. If the rabbits are the people-group who are oppressed, why then do they hold their own biases against foxes? And shouldn’t Idris Elba’s water buffalo get along with Judy since they’re both prey?
Zootopia is so much more complex than it lets on. Within the movie, everyone has prejudices. Judy’s own relationship with Nick the fox sees her trying to prove that he’s decent, then having her fears come true, and then getting to know him for who he is and not just as a fox. And that all happens within the first half-hour. See, the movie crafts a world where it can overtly discuss, well, racism, without necessarily pointing fingers at anyone.
I can’t overstate how amazing it is to see Zootopia tackle this topic head on with such nuance. This is a movie where the hero’s loss of faith isn’t losing a friend, being fired, or what have you, but when Judy is forced to realize her own innate prejudices. What comes next is the realization that someone can be a good person and still be prejudiced, but also that people can change.
Thats the beauty of stories. They’re trojan horses that sneak profundity in where you least expect it. Zootopia’s got incredible world building and is beautifully animated, but it uses it all to tell a beautiful narrative about overcoming your own prejudices. It’s magnificently done; we need more stories like this.
And holy cyprinidae, this is a kid’s movie!