An In-Depth Look: ZOOTOPIA’s surprisingly fresh take on race relations

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flex_tablet_zootopia_selfie_c781d089James Cole Clay // Film Critic

ZOOTOPIA could have been a cutesy “Disney Animated Classic” (in)complete with cuddly CG creatures, animal stereotypes and it would make $200 million easily. We’ve all seen these movies and they’re great, but it’s time for something new.

What Disney decided to do with their most thought-provoking effort in the past decade is raise a consciousness for an issue our country is currently dealing with: race relations. (Note: Pixar is a separate branch from Disney Animated Studios.)

The topic of course is touchy but it’s not meant to weigh on your heavily conscience; the animated feature directed and written by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush relies on light ribbing, but they roll up their sleeves and find creative angles.

You hear all the time, “Oh, this is one for the whole family, a children’s movie with jokes the adults will get, too!” ZOOTOPIA uses this format as the bait and the themes as a reel to effect a true teaching moment for those fresh out of the cradle and those with one foot in the grave.

ZOOTOPIA gets its name from the metropolitan city where the animals reside. It’s there they choose to coexist, where predators and prey can live in harmony. We learn of several different boroughs like “Little Rodentia,” or the rainforest, or the tundra. There’s no forced segregation, the animals are there living with bigger problems on their hands, like having to put on pants, holding a job— the animals from the foxes to the bunnies are really trying to work through the issues while maintaining an everyday way of life by shifting away from the word “normal.”

The characters of ZOOTOPIA. Photo courtesy of Disney.

The characters of ZOOTOPIA. Photo courtesy of Disney.

The central focus of the film is Judy Hops (voiced by Ginnfer Goodwin), a tiny country rabbit bred from family of carrot farmers. She’s going to be the first bunny to be a cop in the history of Zootopia. She achieves this dream with hard work, just another virtue taught to our nation’s youth by way of Disney. It’s through her and her chance encounter with a shifty fox – which after seeing ZOOTOPIA seems a bit offensive – named Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman) who wanted to be a boy scout, but now focuses on hustling seven days a week to earn a living after being discriminated against (sounds a lot like the working class in America). He was bullied as a pup and had a muzzle forcibly put on his snout by a troupe of peers. Not only do we get to see an adorable CG fox in full boy scout regalia, we get a quick lesson on the effects of bullying. Judy and Nick team up in a pulpy neo-noir caper and bring their own sense of agency into the roles. Judy exclaims on the job of Zootopia PD she’s “not just some token bunny” and explains that only a bunny can call another bunny “cute!”

Both characters hilariously misalign with their species harping on stereotypes that ironically comment on their appearance and reputation. The animals here are fully anthropomorphized, but are distinguished from dancing bears and bug munching meerkats to emphasize topical questions that humans deal with daily: What does it mean to coexist? To be human? What’s the difference between civil and savage, and can we be both? This is a universe that would shake a man like Werner Herzog to his core, the eccentric film director is quoted saying “Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.” While Mr. Herzog is a tad too nihilistic for Disney, this is addressed and (somewhat) answered in the climax.

ZOOTOPIA is going to age well, the voice acting and animation are marvelous, this will keep the kids attention and the adults will love the full-on pulpy neo-noir plot line with references to classics like CHINATOWN and THE GODFATHER, which are all incredibly clever and serve the plot for more than just a belly laugh.

Looks like this one will be on the right side of history, and while ZOOTOPIA is not a glimmering beacon of light for civil rights activists around the world, it sure is a nice little lesson for everybody to enjoy.

ZOOTOPIA is playing in theaters today.

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