Identity and Societal Issues in Zootopia: Disney Doing It Right


I like the direction Disney is heading into lately. While caucasian princesses and male superheroes singing jolly songs and going on quirky adventures are as popular as ever, Disney’s Studios show that they are also capable of addressing more serious issues – in a non-threatening, more cuddly way.

An example of this is the new movie Zootopia, which takes place in an alternate universe entirely populated by anthropomorphic animals. Zootropolis, the main capital, is a cleverly constructed metropolis of various microclimates (rainforest, desert, arctic) in which the human-like animals work, play and live together, prey and predators alike.

While the issue of race does not exist in this world, different kinds of species certainly do, which still leads to problems comparable to real-life prejudice and profiling. The movie addresses these serious societal issues by effectively making use of stereotypes that we humans have attributed to animals. That is not only achieved by efficient puns and clever jokes, but also with the characters.

The protagonist is Judy Hopps, a female rabbit who has been dreaming of joining the police forces ever since she was a little bunny. Growing up, she is met with never-ending discouragement from her family, friends, and in the police academy itself. After all, being a police officer is something for big, strong predators, the opposite of what Judy is. However, this does not stop her: Judy finishes the police academy at the top of her class, and leaves her comfortable small hometown to work for the ZPD (Zootopia Police Department) in Zootropolis.

At the heart of the movie is the developing friendship and partnership between Judy and Nick, a fox, who meet by chance and struggle while overcoming their own prejudices towards each other as they work on a crime case together. Judy has to deal with a problem that resembles sexism: as a rabbit, she is presumed too small and weak to work in a field that is as “macho” as the police forces. Nick, on the other hand, who is seen as a “sleazy” fox, is treated with suspicion by others everywhere he goes. This comes down to plain old racism. While Nick plays along with these incorrect accusations, we later learn  that it actually really gets to him. Both Judy and Nick have a history of being bullied as children for who they are, which makes their former unlikely cooperation (as rabbits and foxes are seen as natural enemies in the animal world) to solve a crime that is plaguing the city a good display of intersecting cultures.

Zootopia is filled with more references to our society. For example, Nick cannot help but touch the woolly updo of Judy’s colleague Dawn, a sheep, for which Judy scolds him. This short scene deliberately evokes the issue of non-black people who feel entitled to touch the hair of black women without their consent. Then there is the case that Judy and Nick are working on, which exposes a deep, underlying discrimination towards predators (who make up ten percent of the city’s population and thus can be counted as a minority group), due to the presumption that it ‘is in their nature’ to hunt prey, and they are thus labeled as dangerous.

The underlying tone of criticism is subtle enough for everyone to still enjoy this film, without experiencing tiresome finger-pointing and accusative self-righteous preaching, but nevertheless a razor-sharp observation of the problem of discrimination in our own world. By using animals instead of people, Disney has made it possible for everyone to recognize themselves in the problems the characters experience, which is something we all strife for in battling for equality.

What makes this movie outstanding is that it is honest enough to admit that the fundamental issues of sexism and racism cannot be fixed that easily, and instead of the never-ending “be yourself!”-talk we are tired of hearing by now, this movie emphasizes the notion that everyone has to simply “try to understand each other”, which, in my opinion, is a beautiful message.

Zootopia is another pearl in the Disney oeuvre. Not only because of the beautiful, eye-candy animation, amazing jokes and interesting plot, but also because Disney is actively tackling current societal issues in a gutsy yet earnest way, without pointing fingers. Here’s to more, more and more of these movies, making issues within society less fuzzy, and more cuddly.



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