Disney’s “Zootopia” Shakes Up Viewers With A Close-Up of Intersectionality

(This is a spoiler-free review/meditation on Disney’s Zootopia. A full Disney Odyssey post will be written when we arrive at this point in the Disney Odyssey timeline.) 

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One of the things that Disney has cultivated as a theme over the years is the idea of a diverse and fantastical world full of unique people and creatures living in harmony. Look at the Disney parks for example: every princess lives there, every pirate, every talking animal and alien and toy and robot. They live in the Disneyverse without conflict, without enmity, except for their respective Villains who may cause mischief from time to time. But the bad guys never win, and the good guys are always happy, and there is peace in the kingdom.

This doesn’t work in the individual stories, of course, but it does work pretty well for the Disney parks. In an individual story  there needs to be conflict, confusion, a struggle, a change. When the first trailers for Zootopia were released, I thought it looked charming and sweet. Talking animals is a favorite Disney trope of mine, and this looked like a comedic romp in a world where only talking animals abound. Fun times!

What I did not realize (nor did anyone else, from what I can gather) is that Zootopia would actually turn out to be an immensely moving, eye-opening look into intersectionality, bigotry, profiling and prejudice.

The story of Zootopia hinges on Judy Hopps, a small town rabbit with big city dreams. Despite warnings from friends, family, and even childhood bullies, Judy digs in and works hard to achieve the otherwise impossible goal of becoming Zootopia’s first policerabbit. On her first day officially on the force, Judy noses out the trail of a missing mammal case and enlists the help of a fox (who, unsurprisingly, is a con artist) to follow the trail.

Pretty simple, right? Bunny = good and hopeful and brimming with justice. Fox = con artist who only looks out for himself. And to make things even simpler: the cops are all big, tough animals like wolves, bears, tigers, and rhinos, the mayor of Zootopia is a lion (duh), and his submissive assistant mayor is a lamb sheep. It all makes sense.

I’ll come back to this in a moment.

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Savanna Central, in downtown Zootopia

All animals are different. They come in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors, patterns. They originate in different ecosystems and climate zones. They pursue different things in life, whether it’s their dream career or their next meal. And all of these differences come together in Zootopia, a vast and dazzling city where animals of all kinds live in harmony. From Tundratown to Sahara Square, there is a place here for all animals. Whether they’re the jaguars of Rainforest District or the hamsters and shrews of Little Rodentia – all sizes, all kinds, all animals. There are even different sized doors, escalators, walkways, train compartments, and houses. It’s no coincidence that the city is named for its zoological citizens and for the concept of a perfect society (an idea and a term coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516).

The thing about utopias, though, is that it is basically impossible to establish one. Occasionally they exist in fiction, but they’re rarely a true utopia – there’s always some imperfection lurking underneath the surface.

Zootopia warns you at the very beginning of the biases yet to come, and then about halfway through the movie it becomes vividly clear. This movie isn’t about good guys and bad guys as we are used to seeing them in a Disney context. This movie is about bigotry and prejudice, and the manifestation those things have in our own current modern totally human society.

America – the melting pot. That’s what I was taught growing up; America is a melting pot where many race of people came together and became American, and pursued life, liberty, and happiness. (Thank you, Schoolhouse Rock.) But every day we hear the news, see the headlines, read Facebook statuses… More hate. More profiling. More discrimination based on skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, political beliefs. All sides say: “We love this country and we want it to be a good place to live again.” And yet no one can agree on how to do that. How do we keep people safe and happy, when everyone’s opinion of what that entails is different? How do we accept and celebrate differences while becoming closer together as a people?

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When you look at it that way, the intersectionality in Zootopia becomes more ridiculous than the fact that the animals talk and wear clothing.

But Zootopia isn’t a perfect place. It’s an extremely diverse metropolis with its own baggage of racial profiling and size stereotypes. The movie does an incredible job slipping it in just under the radar, so well that when it finally hit me what was going on, I felt the sting of familiarity and the jarring realism of this animated, animal-centered story.

Without spoiling anything, there is a huge conflict at the center of the story regarding the differences between predators and prey. All animals are civilized and choose to live together in the big city, but when a case Judy’s working on seems to point to predators… some words are said that ring painfully familiar to press conferences, political debates, and online rants of our own.

“Some of my best friends are predators.”

“I’m not saying that all predators are like this, but it seems like it’s just in their biology. They can’t help it.”

“Prey need to stick together.”

Oof. Right on target.

Big Hero 6 struck me as being important for its handling of grief. Inside Out profoundly explored the boundaries of happy and sad feelings in a young mind unused to  blurring the lines between big emotions.

Zootopia is the movie we need right now to remind us to stop and look in a mirror once in a while and ask how we can try to make things – ALL things – better for our fellow mammals. If we stop trying to be better and make the world better for everyone else, then surely we will fail.

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