Fear or Change? : The Message in Zootopia


Disney’s Zootopia is a masterpiece of quirky characters, thoughtful plot twists, and brilliant spectacle. Imagination abounds in the film’s portrait of a city containing multiple habitats and species living right next to each other. Otters, mice, polar bears, water buffalo, lions, sheep, and other animals all live and interact in a variety of spheres. I’m sure the animators had fun dreaming up these exchanges, particularly the inspired vision of sloths running a DMV office.

If we were going to analyze the apparent symbolism and the message hidden in the animal fantasy, I think many viewers would naturally run to the images of different ethnicities within a city like New York or Los Angeles or Atlanta–and of the racism that governs those interactions. I think this angle could spark an interesting discussion, with references to the cliches exposed in certain conversations. For example, when Judy first meets Officer Clawhauser, she challenges him on his use of “cute” in describing her. He places his leopard hands over his mouth realizing his non-PC language and then suggests his own hypocrisy as he eats another doughnut (suggesting another stereotype). On another front, in Judy and Nick’s evolving relationship, “dumb bunny” and “sly fox” (which they both use on the other when they meet) morph into the final descriptions (in playful banter) of “dumb fox” and “sly bunny.” Which adjectives apply? And where do we get these ideas?

So there is fuel here for discussing the film as commentary on racial profiling, yet such a conversation probably would move away from specific references to the film sooner than we thought it might. Why? Because the story does not push toward such complexity. It instead channels us into the binary world of “predator” and “prey.”

And here is where things get interesting? Can we make direct parallels to these two categories? Who are the predators, and who are the prey? If we make specific references to ethnic groups and our own histories of racist profiling and policies, then our discussion immediately becomes politically charged. Here Zootopia resembles another such fantasy Animal Farm–not on the same level of complexity, but on the use of animals to distance us from political problems we think we already have solved. (The original Star Trek ran a similar strategy, using science-fiction tropes instead to explore emotionally-charged questions about racial identity.)

The city Zootopia has a history. In the distant past predators hunted, killed, and ate prey, but now in this developed utopian community, predators and prey have grown “enlightened,” leaving behind the old order. (And presumably have all become vegetarian–though this is not fully spelled out.)  However, even in this “advanced” community, the old “understandings” still linger. Weaker animals still feel scared, still find themselves haunted by their former status as “prey.”

And here the writers throw us a curve. Those who haven’t scene it may want to skip to the end, but I’ll still be a little vague, just in case. When the villain finally stands revealed, she says prey vastly outnumber predators, that she is manipulating events so that her group can gain power, for “fear always works.” Her plot has shaken Zootopia to its foundation because she can tap into a fear that rides beneath the surface image that everyone in the city gets along. She suggests the utopian image is false, and prey need to take the chance they have to secure their futures.

In one of the deleted scenes included on the bluray release, we see a father polar bear giving his son a collar to grant him “entrance” into Zootopia (a rite of passage)– and then growing worried and angry when his son becomes excited at the birthday party (which causes a light on the collar to flash). Perhaps, the writers cut this because they felt it was too heavy-handed or maybe controversial. But it does add to the image of a counter movement.

Here some might see this as a suggestion that “reverse racism” exists, that those who gain power after being oppressed can succumb to the temptation of building a new regime of oppression, carrying on the same prejudice in reverse. Can the policing of a “politically-correct” agenda go too far?

Or do “predator” and “prey” refer to rich and poor? As the divide increases in America, we look back in history at other times and other places (other countries), and we wonder. Yet this idea falters when we wonder whether rich and poor actually coexist and cooperate in a utopian way. Inequalities undermine this interpretation.

Can we see our own relationship with nature in these categories? We human beings see ourselves primarily as predator, though we have nightmares of being prey. What would it be if the animals revolted against us? James Patterson’s Zoo runs in that direction. Do we know how to live together with the animals who share this planet with us? As species go extinct after our dumping waste into the oceans or we’ve pushed them into ever-decreasing and less habitable homes, we do not live in utopian relationship.

Overall, though, the film does not specifically define “predator” and “prey” other than for what it means in the world of Zootopia. We are left to draw parallels, and the film is stronger for it. Judy, in her final speech, says that the answer to the fear that has been unraveling their society is very basic: we should try to make the world better. We should work to overcome stereotypes. And many will raise their eyebrows and say that’s not much of an answer, that Judy is too idealistic.

However, the answer is also the story of Judy and Nick’s relationship. They work through their differences, their misunderstandings, and their fears to forge a friendship that changes their lives and their world. Here is where Zootopia offers us a challenge to do the same. There are still dangers in the world, but we should try to overcome them because the rewards on the other side are worth it.

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