But it’s up to you if it cracks or breaks any.
Zootopia is an unexpectedly clever film that brings to light a lot of uncomfortable truths about living and growing up in a big city. The buzz around it comes from how it goes from being a Capra-esque comedy to being a commentary on many hot topic issues through the mystery that unfolds. Is it about race relations in a multi-cultural city not too different than say LA or NYC? Is it about affirmative action? Is it about gender inequality? Is it about privilege? Is it directly about America putting drugs on the streets to create economic and racial tension?
There’s isn’t really a wrong answer to what it’s about because the unique thing about Zootopia is that like good art, you can see a reflection of your experience in it. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore didn’t sit down and say ‘Hey team, we’re going to make a movie about all these human issues in the form of cute animals.’ The idea to make an anthropomorphic animal film came first and the sociopolitical themes happened almost incidentally out of creating a world in which predators and prey lived in a civilized society. So really the film isn’t designating specific roles to real life groups, it merely explores a world in which predator and prey have developed like we have and what would happen if they reacted like we do in society. Out of that we get to explore the experiences of different kinds through the eyes of these characters. It’s a lot more than the hot topics the internet clamors to either give it credit for or discredit it on.
The words hot topics make me cringe a little. It was first introduced to me in middle school as a way to quiz kids in the morning about sociopolitical issues we could find and retain the most knowledge of from the morning paper. The more you could spout off, the more gold stars you got. These same issues would, in turn, be used to learn debate as we got into high school. Sure we knew about environmental issues, gun violence, poverty, terrorism, drugs in the community, and teen pregnancies but did we learn how to care about these things? Sure the information was vital but where we taught anything but how to settle into discomforting indifference instead of implementing ways to understand and change these issues? Not really. We learned the sides of debate, the pros and cons to sound the smartest. Getting facts, statistics and quoting sources to prove our points. Our gold stars filling our heads with validation before heading home to deal with the realities of our own insulated experiences. For some of us however, these issues were more than just a grade–they were circumstances we came from. To our peers, these circumstances only existed on their breakfast table papers.
I don’t think Zootopia intended to deal with specific real world issues to create a buzz. What I do think is that out of exploring how a society forms and coalesces the story of the film honed in on a crucial social skill that’s not taught in schools: EMPATHY
Zootopia is one of the most important films of the year for that reason, it shows us the various forms of glass ceilings that prevent real inclusion through the massive scope of a city that has integrated all kinds of species.
Though the eyes of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) we get the perspective of any young up-and-comer who makes it out of a small town into the big city with bigger dreams. She becomes the first bunny cop but gets stuck on meter maid duty while the bigger, tougher guys get actual cases. Like most of our fave Disney characters, Judy is optimistic and doesn’t give up on making it as a real crime solving cop. You go in relating to her as anyone who’s trying to prove themselves in their field does. But it can also be seen as feminist, as this bunny taking her chance to shatter the perception that because she’s small that she can’t possibly handle being a real cop. It is through her accessibility that audiences are more able to put themselves in her shoes to see the world of the film as she does.
When she does the right thing, it reaffirms the moments we have felt like Judy. So when she feels conned by Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) after he takes advantage of her kindness, we want justice from the sly fox and we are so into it when she tricks him into helping her to even things out. The odd couple set up leads to the hilarious moments from the trailer as the two investigate the disappearance of an otter but the plots quickly morphs into a crime noir picture.
However, in the last act the film begins to represent the barriers we find ourselves divided by, the biases that the good intentioned learn they perpetuate for ulterior motives and it teaches intersectional empathy while it’s at it. Its a movie about everything we’re facing now without tying it too closely to specific things in order to get viewers to see the experience of others complexly and as important as their own. Yes, its amazing that it fits as an allegory to hot topics but it’s not about pointing fingers or taking from the real world to create debate among intellectuals about issues they perceive but don’t necessarily experience in the same way. Anyone can see their valid experiences reflected through Nick, Judy or any character in Zootopia even Flash.
The film risks more than it’s shortcomings the moment Judy comes back to make things right, to grow in her way of thinking to support someone whose experience is more like hers than she was educated to believe. You have to learn empathy in order to show up for marginalized lives and realize the preconceived notions that hold many societies back are just made out of glass.
So do you stand there to see through them or are you showing up to break them?
It’s enough they’re getting away with Zootopia, so go see it with everyone!