*SPOILER WARNING* This essay heavily uses textual evidence from throughout the film.
The name “Zootopia” (a portmanteau of “zoo” and “utopia”) works ambivalently as the declaration of what this animal society wants to be and as an ironic joke about its failure to meet those aspirations. The joke is on us though since it’s one large Aesop’s fable about prejudice in the real world. The city motto is “anyone can be anything [and not be limited by what they are],” an ideal that protagonist Judy Hopps takes as her own personal motivation to become the world’s first bunny police officer. However the anthropomorphic pretense of the film forces characters to test their devotion to the ideals of this claimed post-racial utopia. Judy believes that foxes can be trusted, despite personal experience and warnings from well-meaning though racist parents, but is she willing to bet her life on it? This is the “Chekov’s gun” of the film, represented by something that literally goes where Judy’s police issued side-arm would be if this weren’t a cartoon. Judy reaches for the “gun” when fear overwhelms logic for the film’s argument about how we don’t live in a society rid bigotry, but only a society that wants to be rid of it.
It’s a very daring choice to make a world full of prejudice and have this spread over into other marginalized characters as well as the main characters. It’s writing 101 to throw the worst and most unfavorable traits at your villains, not the heroes. Supporting lead Nick Wilde (a fox) carelessly calls Judy “carrots” and “cute,” which the rules of the film sates are racist slurs for rabbits. Judy accidentally performs a micro-aggression on Nick, praising him as a “real articulate fella.”.
This use of prejudiced heroes is to circumvent walls that protect people’s bigoted world views such as the defense: bigots are bad people; I’m not a bad person, therefore whatever I say is not bigoted. But prejudice can exist in anyone, even heroes. In a very counter-intuitive, but highly effective way, Disney breaks down this logic by giving cultural blind spots, and even outright bigotry to likeable characters. The storytellers know that while giving undesirable traits to the heroes, they must ensure that the super ego of the film is always coming from a perspective that this is wrong. Characters are almost always immediately condemned for their bigotry, even if the bigot doesn’t really care. The emotional investment in the characters forces the human audience to feel hurt by the phrases “cute bunny” or “sly fox.” Ideally, a prejudiced audience, in wanting to be these characters will identify something dark within themselves and work on removing it.
Zootopia likes to manipulate you against your own politics. Most of the first act sets up how fragile Judy is as a rabbit. When she enters the metropolis we see it through her perspective with a lot of low shots, making the world seem unbelievably huge. Soon after her police academy montage is mostly her instructor saying “You’re dead.” This isn’t including the countless staging of her being the tiniest tiny thing juxtaposed by a pachyderm. So by the time she gets her first assignment, when all the big animals get dangerous cases and Judy gets parking duty, we actually agree with the decision. The police force doesn’t want a dead officer. But then you realize that this scene’s about misogyny and how women are told what kind of life they can have based on how other people see them and their roles. As the plot of the film starts to wear down Judy’s can do attitude, she is repeatedly called a “meter maid” to feminize her humiliation of not being a “real cop.”
You almost want to say that’s a false analogy that just made you agree with a prejudiced system. But Judy is the valedictorian of her police academy, and there’s no logical reason to assume that she can’t perform like any other officer, if not better. It is a proper analogy for how women are often treated in the workforce. The visual language of the film subliminally walks you down a path only to tell you that you were wrong to go there. It builds prejudices in you about bunnies and foxes only to show you how silly that is.
In that same scene of Judy’s first assignment, there is another female who is literally the elephant in the room. This is done specifically to confuse a simple one to one reading of any given situation. While Judy’s humiliation parallels misogynistic realities, a respected large female who is given the “one of the guys” treatment tries to remove gender as the reason our bunny protagonist is handled so delicately. The film tries not to overtly comment on any one social group’s social issues, but takes all the ways one can be marginalized and redistributes them logically throughout the animal world.
The film uses the audience’s ignorance of this world to shift between perspectives on various issues of privilege. The key to their success in this is having the film maintain a clear sense of right and wrong even when the characters do not. Starting from the perspective of a rabbit (and including what we’d expect from biology), we assume that those in control and power are the predators, but later it’s revealed that the prey are 90% of the population in a democratic society. While there’s a lion mayor, it’s revealed through a joke that the assistant mayor (a sheep) was only brought on so that the lion could secure the votes from a section of the prey constituency. At first we think this is someone of privilege trying to pander to a minority, but when it’s revealed that prey animals are the majority, we realize that this was a political game for a minority to claim power in a system that’s stacked against him. These reversals force the audience to constantly reevaluate what they believe.
Constantly withholding information makes a point about assuming someone’s status of privilege. There is no clear cut binary of oppressed and advantaged. The world and the world of Zootopia reject such a simple explanation of social status. Predators have physical power, but are the minority with a lot of associated negative stigma. Outside of the predator/prey paradigm there is also size, money, social connections (like knowing the assistant mayor), gender, and being trans-species (like a fox who wants to grow up to be an elephant). The multifaceted nature of privilege causes status to shift from situation to situation, like real life. In one sequence Judy and Nick are at the mercy of a mafioso artic shrew named Mr. Big who controls a legion of loyal polar bears. While Mr. Big is the tiniest creature in the scene, he commands the most power through implied financial and social powers.
In another instance it’s Judy’s small stature that allows her to follow a thief into Little Rodentia, a district for even smaller animals. Here Judy is a giant who has to literally tiptoe around those who have less size privilege than her. This scene is to show how even though Judy is oppressed by her size, there are those who have it worse than her, yet this does not invalidate Judy’s problems. The battle between the escaping weasel and Judy shows how people approach having middle-privilege. Judy empathizes and protects the citizens of Little Rodentia and treats them with respect. Her criminal foil takes lessons from his oppressors and actively abuses his status and endangers lives for his own gain. The film’s super ego sides with Judy as her behavior in this scene pays off later on.
The constant reevaluations of the prejudices the film builds up about itself, frees the watcher to reevaluating their perspectives of social justice issues. In one sequence Judy is a cop ready to draw a “gun” on an unarmed minority whom she feels is putting her in mortal danger. But at the same time Nick (on the other end of the “gun”) is merely acting threatening to make a point to his friend. Judy should know better, but her fear is irrational. When fear overtakes the characters in this film they revert to their most animalistic tendencies, in some cases running on all fours. Judy reaches for her fox-pepper spray, twitching her nose like a rabbit. It’s only after returning to herself that she realizes what she had done wrong and admits wrong doing. The film is on the side of black lives mattering, but the sequence makes you wonder what you believe by doing justice by both sides. Nick starts to appear more vicious as he confronts Judy. The reverse shot reveals Judy’s genuine fear for her life which proves Nick’s point, devastating his faith that he could ever be accepted and his self-worth as a fox.
Nick’s dramatic want in the film to be free of Judy by recovering the incriminating evidence she has against him, but his dramatic need is to find acceptance in society. This quest gains deep resonance with those who can relate with his formative traumatic experience. As a child his poor mother works to get him a Junior Ranger Scout uniform so he can make some friends. His initiation ceremony is dimly lit and ominous like a horror scene. Nick is so positive about joining a society of his peers, but is rejected for being a dangerous predator. The kids who were supposed to be his new friends hold him down, muzzling him. He shouts a haunting cry “What did I do wrong, guys?!” And we all know the answer is nothing. He did nothing wrong. The lack of specifics or justification in this scene deliberately triggers the audience to connect their own traumas with the cartoon fox’s.
While putting a lot of effort into usurping everything social justice warriors would rather media avoid, Disney puts a lot of effort into making sure the use of these tropes are effective at tackling real themes without being wildly offensive. However, in a perfectly progressive film like this there are always oversights. As the political climate shifts against the predator minority, an emulation of increasing fear and hostilities towards Muslims and Middle Eastern ethnic groups, a defenseless lovable cheetah named Benjamin Clawhauser serves as a counter example to the prejudice, but is victimized anyway. The fearful citizens of Zootopia feel all predators are dangerous, but Clawhauser is pathetically, effeminately harmless. From a narrative perspective, it’s essential to show how the culture shift has affected him when he doesn’t fall into the stereotype that the witch hunt is targeting. The problem is that Clawhauser is made to look harmless by making him too fat, dumb, and gay to do his job. He is depicted as being so fat that he loses donuts in the folds of his chin, too dumb to help Judy look for clues, and there’s a point where the protagonist’s call for help is nearly ignored because he’s too busy gushing about his favorite pop-idol to a random detained suspect. There’s no redemption or greater depth that gets explored to this character. He exists as a comic foil to Judy (in scenes that are mostly comedic gold) or as “the tragic queer” (a trope where a homosexual character suffers so that a heterosexual character learns the errors of their ways).
This isn’t to vilify Disney, but rather to say this is a very compelling character with a lot of potential that isn’t met in the film. If there’s a sequel or animated series, this character would be a good place to develop and expand upon. I can think of five ways to expand Clawhauser for deep and fun stories consistent with the social justice themes of the franchise. It would be heart wrenching if this character is just minimized into overt fat jokes and veiled gay jokes while telling everyone else how painting broad generalizations about people is wrong.
From the standpoint of making traditional children’s animation, one has to ask what the hell Disney was thinking when they made Zootopia. The amount of risk taken in every frame is astonishing. But they must have known that Zootopia is true, and that truth will make a great film that doesn’t offend, but connects and says “We understand.” This film does what the old fairy tales and fables do; they prepare children with an understanding of what awaits them in life. Zootopia isn’t just children’s entertainment. It’s threat rehearsal play…and that’s okay.