Animated Distractions: Disney’s Zootopia

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I decided to totally forget how many children really do go to opening weekend Disney movies (all of them, every child) and popped into the newest flick, Zootopia. Once I managed to fine-tune my attention so I no longer noticed the loud mom over-explaining every single theme in the movie to her toddler, I became suddenly thrilled to realize I was watching a movie about prejudice and biases.

A couple of these biases are obvious before you even go into the movie. Judy Hops is a little bunny who’s told her whole life she can never be a cop, and even after she aces the academy she’s given no respect from her lion and elephant coworkers and her water buffalo boss. Then there’s Nick Wilde, a hustling fox who’s not really as shifty or untrustworthy as he seems.

Then, Zootopia gets a little more complicated.

Judy, the hero, the one who has been misjudged, proves to have her own biases, despite her insistence that she and everyone else be given the same chances. Her problems with this are subtle at first: she keeps the Fox Mace her parents insist she takes to the city, and she suspects Nick of a crime before she h as any proof (she’s sort of right, but that’s not the point). Finally, after a lot has gone down, she proves her own prejudice against certain animals (predators, specifically), something she believes is pure fact —and which, when confronted about this by her new friend, proves that Judy is not as unbiased as she wants to believe.

I read a pretty good criticism of this aspect of the film, pointing out how, if you look at the story from the point of view of pure racism, the message gets complicated, and maybe a little too heavy for this movie to handle. And that’s true. We’re talking about different species, not simply gray bunnies and tan bunnies, and when you pull in that close the message is a little iffy.

But I don’t think you need to pull in that close. I agree more with others that Zootopia isn’t a straight comparison. I prefer instead to take a few steps back: this is a movie about biases and prejudice, which can be racism, or sexism, or anything that causes you to judge, dismiss, or fear another individual before you even know what they’re capable of. Maybe sometimes a prejudiced point of view feels justified, but that’s how people who actively try to be fair, like Judy, make mistakes in their judgement. Mistakes that can hurt other people, that can hurt their friends — and hopefully mistakes that they have a chance to learn from before it’s too late.

Zootopia isn’t the best recent Disney movie (that award, in my opinion, goes to the near perfectly crafted Wreck-It-Ralph) and I didn’t bawl in public like during Inside Out. But it’s a funny, earnest film, with characters that are flawed in that awful, complicated, very human way (despite being rabbits and foxes!). There are real moments of danger (which is why I wouldn’t actually suggest taking your very small child to it) and some parts where you’re worried that Judy is going to fail, not just at her case but at being a friend, that stirred up some deep, deep feelings. Which is exactly what I want my children’s movies to do.

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