‘Zootopia’: A Disney Movie Tackling Inequality and Racism

Zootopia - Disney Animation
Source: Disney

Disney’s in-house animation studio has slowly but surely been catching up to its Pixar counterparts for years now. Movies like Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6 have shown the John Lasseter-led operation’s ability to make a nuanced animated movie, and with Disney’s latest release in Zootopia, it has officially crested the mountaintop. Everything from the intensely masterful visual elements to the surprisingly deep social message made it a movie that would just as easily fit under the Pixar banner as any other.

The story follows Judy Hopps, a rabbit looking to become the first of her species to ever join the Zootopia Police Department. Things go far deeper than a simple “small character looks to accomplish big things” narrative. The world Judy lives in is one where both predators and prey live in (supposed) harmony, despite obvious biases against smaller animals and their ability to hold down certain jobs, act a certain way, and exist on the same plane as “superior” creatures. If that all sounds eerily familiar, that’s because it is, acting a direct parallel for our own nation’s spotted record with race and gender equality.

Disney has created an animated movie depicting a surface-level post-racial utopia with a dark underbelly. On a tertiary level, the city of Zootopia looks like one where all animals coexist peacefully. But what we see as the movie goes on is a society that would rather believe it has no inter-species problems to solve, rather than taking a hard look in the mirror. The central conflict revolves around a fear of predators, a small minority of the population that prey believe are genetically predisposed to harm them. It’s a heavy racial narrative for what amounts to a kids’ movie, but one that’s all too relevant given the real-world context of its story.

Zootopia isn’t entirely heavy-handed though. There are some truly touching and hilarious moments throughout, highlighted by a sequence where Judy Hopps needs to run a license plate number at a DMV staffed entirely by sloths. Virtually every critic seems to agree too, with the movie currently steamrolling along at a healthy 100% on Rotten Tomatoes (out of 39 total reviews). It’s no wonder the film made a cool $1 billion at the box office when it was all said and done, making it the second highest grossing original movie of all time (right behind Avatar and ahead of The Lion King). Many other reviews cite the heartfelt message and Pixar-esque feel as a driving force behind this, but the real victory isn’t merely it’s box office haul: It’s the animation itself.

io9 went in depth on all the details the technology of the film utilized, and it’s nothing short of groundbreaking. “In this movie a single giraffe has more individual hairs on it — 9 million — than every single character in either Frozen, Big Hero 6, or Wreck-It Ralph,” they note. Needless to say, the work done to bring the world of Zootopia to life was beyond meticulous in its execution. Each animal hair had to be individually manipulated by the animators, something that’s never been done on this sort of scale before for any movie.

When it’s all said and done, Zootopia will be remembered as a movie that made a bold statement about race in one of the most racially charged periods in the modern era. The #OscarsSoWhite controversy is still far from being solved, and Hollywood continues to struggle with issues of whitewashing. Outside of entertainment, there’s still a subtle brand of racism that’s difficult to identify, but it’s just as harmful as its more overt iterations. Disney goes full steam ahead in combating this, and on that alone, it’s safe to say that Pixar no longer has a monopoly on truly great animated cinema.

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