“Zootopia” opens with an elementary school play and a deceptively simple message. Protagonist Judy Hopps, a pre-adolescent bunny, narrates a brief history lesson about the pre-Zootopia world — a vicious place where the gory spectacle of predator versus prey subjugated all species to a meager life of survival. Things are different now, of course. Now the species have united to create a place where, according to Judy, “anyone can be anything.”
Sounds nice. But Judy’s optimism about her own society quickly runs into a few contradictions. First, her own parents refuse to believe that dreams come true, trying gently to squelch her dreams of becoming the first-ever bunny cop. The schoolyard bully — a fox — is a little more forceful with his pessimism, violently asserting his place in the food chain by leaving several gashes on Judy’s cheek. The examples only multiply as a tenacious Judy grows up to fulfill her dream and garner an assignment to Zootropolis’ police force.
I will stop with the exposition now, because this is all pretty standard Disney fare: an unlikely protagonist against immeasurable odds, overcoming the assumptions of those around her. Like so many similar films, “Zootopia” seeks to reflect our society, neatly summarizing a thousand stereotypes of our daily life by using animal kingdom analogs — sloths running a DMV, lemmings working a 9-to-5 and foxes making a shifty living off of barely-legal hustling.
Yet “Zootopia” stands out because of its utter specificity about the ugliest parts of our society. The movie is not just about overcoming adversity as a general concept. Neither is it just about following our dreams and becoming anything we want. “Zootopia” is about navigating a world that attaches strict labels to appearances. It’s about diverse groups of animals learning how to occupy shared space. It’s about the violence that lurks just beneath the surface of seemingly civilized societies, a violence often endorsed by the label of criminal justice and approved by all those who benefit most.
“Zootopia,” in short, is about racial tension in an increasingly globalized world — our world.
Many films cover the topic of racism, but few avoid the pitfalls of racial storytelling so deftly as “Zootopia.” Watching movies like “Selma” or “Remember the Titans” or “Schindler’s List” — excellent treatments of prejudice in their own right — we too easily process them like Judy’s history lesson in her elementary school play. “Things are different now, of course,” we tell ourselves, ignoring the fact that such tensions bury themselves deeply in the fabric of our daily lives. Sometimes, racially sensitive productions anesthetize us to their own imminent relevance.
For that reason, “Zootopia” is a valuable addition to the conversation — perhaps the most valuable animation on the topic. The not-so-subtle hints at racial themes are too glaringly current to be relegated to the past. As Zootropolis’ police force finds itself at the center of city-wide fears and anxieties about violence between predators and prey, viewers are forced to acknowledge the corollaries with today’s Black Lives Matter movement. A more subtle connection can be made to the fear-mongering associated with the Syrian refugee crisis.
The treatment of race in “Zootopia” has its flaws, partly because the film stays true to its target audience: children, who may not have the frame of reference for complex political allegory. Spoiler: the hero saves the day, and the villain is defeated — not always how things work in the real world. If only systemic racism presented itself in one malicious figurehead. Yet “Zootopia” offers a refreshingly sensitive depiction of an otherwise prickly topic, hopefully priming our younger generations to deal with racial tension more productively than we have in our own checkered and not-so-distant past.