Disney’s Self-Reflexive Zootopia

At a time when racial tension in America runs high, Zootopia is perhaps Disney’s most political film yet. Screenwriters Jared Bush and Phil Johnston use the comedy genre in order to create film with a political dimension. In Zootopia, this political dimension parallels racial tensions in America. Take for example one scene where the protagonist, Officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), first meets her future reluctant partner, Nicholas Wilde (Jason Bateman). Wilde is being denied service at an ice-cream parlor run by Elephants as he is not an elephant. The dejected Wilde begins to walk away with his son until Hopps intervenes. She threatens to ticket the parlor for health-code violations before delivering a message on equality. Wilde is served and Hopps walks away, head held high.

The scene described here parallels the overt racism which ran in America during the first-half of the 20th century and while perhaps not eye-opening to the older members of the audience, the moral of the scene—that is, equality for all, even in the most minute of places, such as areas of commerce—is an important one for Disney’s main target audience, children. As the biggest producer of children’s films, the messages of Disney’s works carry a large amount of clout both spoken and unspoken.

The more recent works of Disney can be seen as a reaction towards criticism for Disney’s pattern of unspoken messages, such as the creation of The Princess and the Frog. The Princess and the Frog is a film featuring an African-American “princess,” and so it expands the pantheon of Disney’s majorly white female cast. The “unspoken” message coming from Disney before the creation of this film, is that a princess could only be white. The Princess and the Frog, however, challenges Disney’s aforementioned “unspoken” message, because it offers a different form of female representation on-screen. Zootopia can be seen as this next step in Disney’s increasing reversal of criticism against their older film and understandably so.

Zootopia begins with Judy Hopps, a rabbit from a small town community. At an early age, Hopps announces that she’s going to be the first ever bunny cop, a declaration that worries her parents for fear of her safety. After finally making it through a montage of training at Police academy, Hopps is placed in Zootopia, an idyllic city where predators and prey live together. Hopp’s ideals of justice, however, are crushed when the police squad—a group of males who signal her arrival with testosterone fueled roars—treat her with prejudice and assign her as a metermaid. Hopps is offered one last chance when she stumbles upon a case of missing predators that soon unravels into a much bigger plot: predators are suddenly reverting to their primitive forms, attacking any animal in sight.

It’s not too unconventional for a story featuring animals to actually be a moral allegory about humans but what sets Zootopia apart from its other Disney counterparts is a realm of seriousness that stems from its political dimension. In this particular case, the various predator and prey are reflective of different races in America, both white and minority. This is clearly no incident on Disney’s part. Certain lines in the film further reinforce this parallel, i.e., the word “cute” being a derogatory term when used towards bunnies by animals other than bunnies and later on, a line that reveals the prey outnumber the predators 9:1. Further removing itself away from the fantastical nature of other Disney films, Zootopia even has a slight stab at Frozen in the form of a punch-line revolving on escapist fantasies.

As serious as Zootopia can be at times, the film is still a comedy and features a slew of jokes and more light-hearted moments. The screen-writers at hand have created a script of wit, with dialogue between Hopps and Wilde being enjoyable to watch/listen to but never becoming too artificial. That’s to say, the dialogue between Hopps and Wilde never seem as if the screenwriters are overindulging themselves to see who can be wittier; the punch-lines know when to come and when to go.

On dealing with its real-world reflections Zootopia is rather direct. There’s no subtly to the film’s message (ultimately, society should do away with racism) but this isn’t an issue. There are no speeches—although there are direct lines—that are overly-preachy. Zootopia’s forwardness means that the film’s morality isn’t hidden under any pretense. The film directly deals with issues of race, a rather serious topic that is unseen in conventional children’s films.

Disney’s Zootopia is a blend of humor and most importantly, an element of real-world self-reflexivity that gives the film a political dimension. The politics of Zootopia distance it from Disney’s other conventional films but this works to the strength of the film; a serious topic perhaps requires a serious film. Zootopia’s humor isn’t relegated to the background but mixed into the politics of the movie, making it a hybrid of sorts. Here’s a Disney film that treats its subject matter with an air of maturity but also inflects that maturity with light-hearted humor, making it very, very fun

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