Saturday Morning Cartoons: Disney tackles racism with “Zootopia”

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If there is one word to describe Disney’s latest film, Zootopia, it is “topical”, and unlike the mainstay of Disney films it “isn’t some cartoon musical where they sing their little songs and their insipid dreams magically come true”. Or at least, that is exactly how one of the characters in this very film puts it. Much in the manner of Frozen Disney seems to be subverting its own tropes and tackling some hard subjects; in particular, racism.

Walt Disney Studios

Zootopia has a rather cliche and common premise, and it being a Disney film, I was expecting it to not quite move outside its go-to themes of “follow your dreams” and “you can be whatever you want”. It is about Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a young rabbit who has worked hard to become a police officer of the city of Zootopia. She is not taken seriously by her coworkers or superiors and thus to prove herself, she must solve a missing animal case within 48 hours. Her only lead? The fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who is a cynical hustler, and believes that you can only ever be what you are. A majority of the film is rather predictable. The bunny cop buddy cop scenario, and the mystery of the missing animals is really easy to follow. If this movie were only about the case itself, then the film would not have been as good, but it is wrapped in such stellar social commentary that makes this film so great. Definitely a film that people need to watch.

Walt Disney Studios

The references to racism are at times subtle, but other times, very on the nose. Much of the story’s conflict comes from predator/prey relations, but there is of course, species to species stereotypes thrown about everywhere in the film. Judy meets many obstacles throughout her life due to the fact that she is a rabbit attempting to be a cop in a world where many tell her she can’t due to her species. She is treated disrespectfully and given no support from her coworkers, and especially from her boss, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba). At one point she pleads with him to give her a better job than meter maid, telling him that she is not just a “token bunny”. The movie uses many coded words such as “sly fox”, “dumb bunny”, or Nick’s slightly demeaning name for Judy, “carrots”. One scene in particular has the plump cheetah, Clawhauser (Nate Torrence), calling Judy “cute”. Judy is quick to inform him that “a bunny can call another bunny ‘cute'” but not other animals. Later on Clawhauser is on the receiving end of preconceived misconceptions when he is forced to go from receptionist duty to being put in the back room due to the fact that a predator like him is not “the first face people want to see” when they enter the police station. Our first scene with Nick shows him being refused service at an elephant ice cream shop due to his species, which is similar to how people are refused service due to their race, religious affiliation, or sexual orientation. And one scene that includes the sheep, Bellwether (Jenny Slate), has Nick touching her wool without her knowledge or permission, which much like touching a black person’s hair, you are not supposed to do. There are a few lines of dialogue that let us know that Judy was assigned to the Zootopia Police Department (ZPD) due to a “Mammal Inclusion Initiative” which echoes of Affirmative Action. Many characters throughout the movie accuse various species of animals as being weak, or savage, or whatever due to their “biology” or “DNA”.

What is perhaps most impressive about the film is that, even Judy, who has been oppressed due to her species, and who has been a victim of racism for much of her life, is also in her own bubble, and is blind to her own prejudices. Early in the film, her parents give her a spray can of mace-like fox repellent, and despite disagreeing with their paranoia, she carries the can throughout the film, even as she is working with a fox. Judy and Nick play off each other well with the best of any buddy cop scenario, but still manages to feel unique with the underlying tones of racism creating a subtle and then large rift in their relationship.

Walt Disney Studios

Many films that try to tackle the topic of racism often do so in a way that makes the bigots very obvious and pretty much always the antagonists. However, like real life, Zootopia provides us with a spectrum of racism – from the very blunt of refusing service to the very subtle where the characters themselves don’t even realize that they are stereotyping. This film essentially tells us that everyone is a little bit racist, and being aware of that can help us better ourselves and how we treat each other.

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