I went into a screening of Zootopia expecting to see a relatively short movie about anthropomorphized animals trying to live out their dreams in a big city. Five minutes into the film, and after a few laughs, though, it became clear that beneath its clever puns Zootopia‘s actually a sharp-witted commentary on modern race relations.
At this point, you’ve probably seen that one scene from Disney’s Zootopia with the sloths working in the DMV. While the scene’s plenty funny, thankfully, it’s not actually how the movie begins.
Zootopia opens with a young Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) acting out the history of animal kind during an elementary school performance. Before thousands of years of evolution civilized the world’s animals, Judy explains, the jungle was a place defined by “fear, treachery, and bloodlust” where prey animals lived in a constant state of primal fear of predators who hunted them.
Now, though, Bunnies and other prey live in a world where they don’t have to fear Tigers. They live alongside them trying to eke out a living in the sprawling, vaguely New York-esque metropolis of Zootopia where animals from all walks of life spend their time chasing their dreams and getting stuck in traffic. There are still elements of social—and biological—stratification but generally speaking, everyone’s more or less on equal footing.
On one level, Zootopia‘s a slick, animated movie about plucky rabbit cop trying to solve the mystery behind a string of strange disappearances. On another, though, it’s a complicated conversation about the ways that prejudice, political power, and class shape the how people relate to one another.
Though Judy comes from a sizable family of country carrot farmers, she moves to the city to become a police officer, a profession traditionally dominated by larger predator animals. While her family begrudgingly accepts that she wants to be a cop, they make a point of warning her about the dangers of the big city–specifically biological predisposition that that foxes and other predators have towards violence.
Judy points out that she knows plenty of bunnies who are jerks, but her parents insist that she take a number of forms of fox repellent styled after pepper spray.
While it’d be easy for Zootopia to lean on the predator vs. prey binary as its sole form of social commentary, the film actually highlights the complicated the relationships between nearly all of its animals. In the same breath that Judy’s father warns her about killer wolves, he makes an off-handed comment about a weasel friend who cheats at cribbage. Nick Wilde, a fox played by Jason Bateman, is stereotyped as a con man in a scene where Judy assumes that he’s up to no good in an ice cream shop.
It turns out that she’s right about Nick, but his penchant for crime springs from a childhood trauma involving a gang of larger prey animals that he wanted to be friends with. Throughout the film, there’s an undercurrent of fear of predators, but writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston consistently show how speciesism isn’t a one-way street.
When Zootopia’s core plot kicks into gear, it’s clear that the filmmakers aren’t just speaking to the movie’s target audience of kids. In the process of investigating the disappearance of predators across the city, Judy and Nick stumble across a series of attacks involving predators suddenly going “savage”–reverting to their animal instincts and viciously attacking other people.
Judy’s role in the investigation legitimizes her as a cop in the eyes of her superiors but in the process, she stumbles into the murky waters of becoming the mouthpiece for the police force.
“It may have something to do with biology,” Jody responds to a reporter during a press conference about why some predators are suddenly turning savage. “A biological component, you know, something in their DNA.”
“What I mean is: thousands of years ago, um, predators survived through their aggressive hunting instincts. For whatever reason, they seem to be reverting back to their primitive, savage ways.”
As much as the scene is grounded in the world of Zootopia, it’s shot through with elements of many of the real-world police-run press conferences that have followed in the wake of the dozens of high-profile shooting of black people in recent years. Though Judy admits that the ZPD doesn’t know the specific details of the case, reporters focus on the few problematic soundbites she feeds them while taking in visuals of rabid, muzzled animals that the police have detained.
As the race for the Democratic nomination for this year’s election have intensified, many have taken firm stances against Hillary Clinton for positions she took in the 90s in regards to the now disproven idea of the “super predator.”
“They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” Clinton said in 1996. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
The parallels between the super predator myth and Zootopia‘s literal media panic about predators might not have been intentional, but they’re striking and difficult to ignore.
Judy knows that it’s morally wrong to assume that all predators are biologically destined to be dangerous sociopaths, but as a police officer, it’s the easiest narrative for her to present to the public. Zootopia, assistant mayor Dawn Bellwether (Jenny Slate) explains, is 90% prey and the people just want to be safe from danger.
Ultimately, Zootopia comes across as the perfect and unexpected balance between Finding Nemo and ABC’s American Crime. It explains that no one character is without fault in the roles that they play in maintaining racist power structures and that dealing with racism has to be a deeply collaborative effort.
What Zootopia gets right about that effort where so many other films about about prejudice fall short, though, is that in order for it to work, a lot of the heavy lifting has to be done by the majority and those in power, not stigmatized minorities.
Fusion is a joint venture between Univision and ABC, Disney’s parent company and the studio behind Zootopia.