Walt Disney Animation Studios recently released Zootopia, where anthropomorphic animals rule the world and humans never existed. In the movie, the underestimated protagonist attempts to defy all of the odds against her by working hard and overcoming adversity. Throw in some forced animal puns, a catchy pop theme song, and an unpredictable villain and the final result does not stray far from Disney’s comfort zone. However, this film did have a new layer. The studio that has been considered racist on occasion has released a new film which incorporates the same prejudice and discrimination entrenched in real society.
The film begins with the main character, a small town bunny named Judy Hopps, who explains that the world has moved away from a time when predators dominated and prey lived in fear to a state where everyone can live happily together and be who they want to be, falling for the same illusion that plagues today’s everyday citizen. When she moves to the big city of Zootopia to work as a police officer, she discovers that the people are not as open-minded as she thought. Even as a police officer, she is not taken seriously because she is a bunny. She is warned to be careful of predators but refuses to be guarded by this fear, and her faith in all creatures’ ability to overcome societal expectations leads her to trust unlikely characters.
The film shows prejudice on both sides. Judy is bullied by predators and finds it difficult to be taken seriously. On the other hand, when many predators go missing, their biological difference is blamed, which causes unfair prejudices and discrimination to disadvantage them in Zootopia. It does not help that they only make up 10% of Zootopia’s population. It is clear that even though Zootopia has evolved, underlying fears of predators have still left prejudiced and unwarranted fears deeply entrenched in society which, as it is revealed in the film, can be traced all the way to the political office. While the society of Zootopia has come far enough in allowing its varied citizens to coexist in order to create an illusion of harmony and total acceptance, there is still a long way to go before achieving true equality and all citizens can be treated as equals and receive fair opportunities (sounds familiar?).
The film’s writers accent this theme through the use of subtle stereotyping. Throughout the movie, characters pass comments about other animals in the same way that humans racially stereotype: the sly foxes who shouldn’t be trusted, the dumb and gentle bunnies, the slow sloths, aggressive bears, hippie yaks and so on. In one scene at the beginning, Nick, a fox, is refused service at an ice cream parlour because he is not an elephant. All of this helps to build a society like ours, where people of varying backgrounds can coexist, but also become products of their upbringing and are profiled at first sight. The film reiterates that stereotypes exist for a reason, but not for the reason that everyone thinks. Kids can look at the film and be amused by the animals and watching the underdog win, but adults can catch the main theme: in a society of conscious beings, the barriers and labels which exist, many of which stem from fear, are socially contrived, not biologically. While stereotypes can be accurate for many, they can just as easily be wrong.
Zootopia is successful in its social commentary. The film still features Disney’s signature elements like charming and memorable characters and a fun redemption story, but it also takes advantage of its expanded audience in order to spark a conversation that needs to be had. There are other layers to this film, as a whole other article could be written in regards to gender issues. The movie has a nice ending, which features the main characters first exposing prejudice and those spreading it, then, at the very end, reversing their stereotypes. This is classic of a children’s movie, inciting belief in a world devoid of discrimination.