A Walt Disney Production: “Zootopia”
When I was in my late teens and just getting into makeup, there were days when I would put on a full face just to sit in the basement and watch Netflix. If I had a reason to go out, I would, but a lot of times I would just put it on for fun. On one particular Saturday my senior year of high school, I was debating whether or not the whole process would be worth it. I was home alone with no car, but I did have enough cash to go to the movies if I walked about two hours. With nothing better to do, I found a showtime later that afternoon that would give me enough time to do my makeup and walk over, and a few hours later I was walking past the crowd of furries that had congregated outside my local Alamo Drafthouse to go buy my ticket for Zootopia. It was an interesting sight to see, and it was hilarious to hear an old man in the bar area cheerfully ask, “Why’s everybody dressed up?” but I didn’t judge. Well, except for the woman I saw wearing a tee shirt with the word “furries” misspelled. I judged her a tiny bit.
In any case, I thought the movie was well worth the long walk to the theater and back home, and would later see it a second time with my mother, this time with not a fursuit in sight, which saved me from the awkward task of explaining the concept to her. That is, until the next summer when we happened to stay the night at a hotel in Pittsburgh that was hosting Anthrocon.
Zootopia itself was an interesting entry into the Disney canon, tackling social issues that, in the middle of the most intense election cycle I’ve lived through so far, were remarkably relevant, and spoke to its audience, whether they be in positions of privilege or of marginalization, as an indictment of both not only bigotry, but complacency.
Sometime in the early 2010s, Tangled co-director Byron Howard and then chief creative officer of WDAS and Pixar John “Attended Wrap Parties With a Handler” Lasseter got to talking about their favorite older Disney films. Their respective lists included 1973’s Robin Hood and the 1949 short The Wind in the Willows, both films whose cast was made up entirely of various species of animals who talked and walked upright, but were still drawn to scale, which allowed for a more interesting environment and charming visuals. They realized that the studio hadn’t done a film like that in a good while, and soon several different teams within the studio’s staff were being sent to the animation research library to look over cells from older Disney films like the ones mentioned above to try to find inspiration for a new animal feature.
An interesting angle the staff found to approach the project was the fact that species of animals are vastly more different from each other than groups of people are, yet when they were personified, there were still commonalities to be found. Namely, the same commonalities that humans share: the desire to feel a sense of belonging, to be treated fairly, and to simply be happy in life. A major theme in Zootopia that was already present at this point in development was the tension between predator and prey species, only at the time those issues stemmed from the predators’ violent instincts. But after the team did some research and learned that, in nature, prey animals outnumber predators in a 10:1 ratio, the story changed so that the characters had evolved out of their primal instincts and the problems came from bias between the two groups. With that, they realized that the movie could potentially say something very important about our own world, but only if it was executed in just the right way.
The studio worked with Dr. Shakti Butler, an expert in modern-day systemic bias, to craft that element of the film. They wanted to go beyond simply telling the audience that prejudice is a bad thing, so they instead presented the argument that, although most people know that it’s wrong, it’s still pervasive in society, even in people with the best intentions. Through this angle, they wrote a world that parallels our own to show that coexistence between different groups doesn’t fix all of the problems between them; that may be a start, but a major culture shift would be necessary in order to achieve systemic equality. The filmmakers drew on their own experiences with both privilege and discrimination: co-director Byron Howard recognized that he came from a privileged background as a white man with a middle-class upbringing, but was still marginalized as a gay man. Head of story Josie Trinidad (who most recently filled that same role on Ralph Breaks the Internet) identified with the movie’s themes as an Asian-American woman with a young son who she wants to teach to be proud of his heritage. Screenwriter Jared Bush, arguably the most privileged of this small group within the staff, found that working on the project helped him to identify his own shortcomings with internalized prejudices, and changed the way he planned to discuss the issue with his young children. In order to make the topic accessible to as broad an audience as possible, they didn’t go the route of assigning each species a corresponding race or ethnicity in human terms. Rather, they opted for a universal depiction of prejudice; it wasn’t strictly representative of race or gender, it was just two groups who didn’t get along.
In the first few drafts of the script, the fox Nick Wilde was the main character through whose perspective the story was told. It delved deep into his backstory and experiences as a predator living in Zootopia, and all the social challenges that that entailed. Inspired by the 1970 documentary Eye of the Storm, the story team had the idea that predators in Zootopia were required to wear “tame collars,” which would shock them if they started feeling any kind of strong emotion. They felt it was a proper shorthand for the discrimination these characters faced, but these early iterations had one major problem: the world wasn’t likable. After an early screening for the staff at Pixar, the WDAS staff received feedback that the concept of the tame collars instantly made the viewer hate the setting, and thus no one was going to root for the characters to become better. In the same vein, showing the film through Nick’s point of view eliminated any surprise for the audience that there were major problems in the society of the film, and they would also have been made to share the character’s cynicism about the world, which may be understandable given his position in it, but isn’t desirable from a moviegoer.
An option that the Pixar staff offered to fix the issue presented by the collars was to use stereotypes to convey the prejudices instead of a visual symbol: foxes are thought to be sneaky, and rabbits are looked at as cute and non-threatening. These aren’t stereotypes that really impact our world, but if they transfer over to a world of personified animals, they become harmful to the characters and make for a more engaging conflict. Since the heavier focus on Nick was making the movie less fun to watch in parts that were supposed to be funny or clever, the staff made Judy Hopps the lead instead, and added in the element of her also being stereotyped and underestimated by others for her size, and later on finding that she has her own limited views of others to overcome. This made it so that the city of Zootopia was first presented as a paradise of peaceful coexistence from Judy’s optimistic point of view, only to reveal the cracks in its system when Judy herself started to discover them. Her realization that she is not exempt from the prejudices ingrained in prey animals in this world despite her good-natured demeanor and noble intentions made for a stronger character arc, and the movie became more identifiable both to people belonging to marginalized groups and to people in positions of privilege who may not always see the effects of institutionalized oppression in everyday life.
Like Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia boasts some brilliant world-building for its diverse metropolis. The different districts within the city are introduced visually as Judy’s train passes through each one, and with each shot, they explain visually how their different ecosystems are maintained: the Rainforest District has an overhead sprinkler system, Tundra Town has a wall with enormous vents blowing out cold air, with giant heaters on the other side facing Sahara Square. We also see the areas in more detail throughout the sequence in which Judy follows Nick and Fennick as they carry out their popsicle heist, a scene that acts both as a way to show off the different settings and as a brief yet effective exposition of Nick’s true nature as a character. Not only does this make the setup more believable, it allows for some grand landscapes and fun and creative environments for the characters to interact with. The filmmakers clearly thought out every detail of how mammals of widely varying sizes could live together and gave the world of Zootopia a unique visual style presents a setting that is complex, fun to explore, and takes full advantage of its potential both visually and textually.
The world has its own culture and history that, although it reflects our own, is unique in the finer details of how their social systems run, right down to the detail of wolves and big cats never having been domesticated. There’s no clear-cut designation of which race or ethnicity any one species is; no implication of “the sheep represent white people, the foxes are Latinx, etc.” It differentiates their world from ours, but also provides commentary on how people who are marginalized on one axis may very well be privileged or prejudiced on another (i.e. a person of color being homophobic, or a gay man being misogynistic). Chief Bogo accuses Judy of stereotyping aggressive predators of being savage, then almost immediately turns around and stereotypes Nick as untrustworthy. Jenny Slate’s Bellwether is dismissed for her size and put down by her boss, but ends up exploiting the system that keeps predators marginalized for her own gain. Although the main conflict stems from predators being treated as second-class citizens, there are also prey characters with their own stereotypes to overcome, though the film never purports that this excuses them from their biases. The broader concept of bias is universal, so there’s no need to hit the audience over the head with these themes. As a result, the movie goes beyond just being a talking-animal film where the audience has to accept that this society exists within this fictional world without asking any questions (not that it’s hard to suspend my disbelief that far for other movies).
In its themes of exploring racism and prejudice, the film doesn’t talk down to anybody. The message isn’t as simple as, “We shouldn’t hate each other for what’s on the outside.” It’s true, but reiterating it isn’t going to change anything. Judy goes through a journey of realizing just how ingrained prejudice is in society, and how each individual has to take responsibility for the ways in which they may have unwittingly contributed to it. She has to learn that, despite her good intentions, she’s just as culpable for harm done to marginalized communities through simply saying the wrong thing or ignoring the systemic problems in the world. She’s an unrelenting optimist at the start of the film, but she goes through a natural progression into more of a realist. She doesn’t stop having faith that people are good, but she comes to understand that anyone can fall into the trap of making assumptions about others based on an aspect of their identity, and becomes more self-aware and perceptive of how those assumptions affect people’s behavior and interactions in subtler ways.
Through Nick Wilde’s backstory, we also see how prejudices can change a person bearing the brunt of them. He’s more like Judy as a kid, until he receives an especially rude awakening to how cruel the world can be to people in his position. His childhood trauma is inflicted by other children who could very well have changed as they grew up, but the damage is done. It’s another reason we have to watch ourselves for biased behaviors and rhetoric — they can be absorbed by kids who don’t know better and come out as bullying or even violence. Judy has a similar experience in her childhood, but where this gives her more motivation to prove her doubters wrong and even promotes an internalized prejudice against foxes that she’s often unaware of, Nick’s experience hardens him and makes him cynical about his place in society. This motif of different characters turning out differently based on the same kinds of backgrounds is present in a few major plot points: Bellwether has faced the same prejudices as Judy for being a smaller, more stereotypically vulnerable animal, but she let it turn her into a bigot herself. You can tell that if Judy wasn’t the optimist she is, she might have turned out the same way. But the most prominent example is in the dynamic between Judy and Nick, who have possibly the most drastically different backgrounds of anyone in the cast.
Via a friendship between the two leads that forms naturally over the course of the film (and is never even hinted to be romantic), their clashing world views end up changing each other: Judy goes from thinking that the world’s biggest problems can be solved by short-term, tangible actions to understanding that all anyone can do is try to be the best person they can be and not accept injustice where they see it, which will at least make a significant change in a few people’s lives, and Nick learns that, although some people’s minds can’t be changed about his species, he doesn’t have to live his own life based on their expectations. Both characters are on equal footing with one another in their dynamic; they each bring skills to the table that only they could, and they both have turns outwitting each other as Nick tries to get back evidence of his tax evasion from Judy, and Judy tries to get him to aid in her investigation of a missing otter. Judy is in over her head in some areas, but she’s still clever and insists on being taken seriously by her peers. The jabs between her and Nick never become too mean-spirited once they start warming up to each other, and make for a more realistically developing friendship. Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman bring wonderful emotional range to the characters, and Nick’s dry sense of humor aided by Bateman’s deadpan delivery is especially a highlight of the film.
The movie is a little more practical than traditional Disney films in its depiction of the world as a deeply flawed place that can’t be fixed simply by stopping one villain, but it’s also hopeful. It argues that a lot of dreams can come true if you put the work into it, but no dream comes without its challenges, and they may not always turn out the way you expect. As Judy says in her closing monologue, “Life is messy.” There are bound to be some limitations people face as a result of something pertaining to their identity; just as a blind person can’t see and a Deaf person can’t hear (at least not as well as others, depending on the extent of the disability), a sloth in Zootopia can’t move fast on their own. But it doesn’t make anyone lesser than, nor does it doom anyone to a life of tragedy. The city’s mantra that “anyone can be anything” turns out not to be strictly true, but that doesn’t mean the characters don’t have a say in who they get to be.
Like co-director Rich Moore’s previous project at Disney, Wreck-It Ralph, the script here is another one in which all of the themes and character setups tie together to enhance the story. Once it’s been established that predators face discrimination in this world, it’s believable that the city can fall into a mob mentality when they’ve been presented with a conceivable reason for something frightening that they still don’t know the cause of. The mystery that this occurs in response to is compelling, going from a standard case of people mysteriously disappearing to something that is revealed to be a pattern, then later on to be a planned attack on this subset of people, and it ends up being solved with aid from the characters’ specific personalities and backgrounds. Nick’s life as a con artist allows the duo to find the missing mammals, and Judy’s upbringing in a carrot-farming family ends up giving them the key to answering the question of how and why the newly found predators have “gone savage.” Said answers are mostly found through enlisting the help of characters who were, in one way or another, already involved in or witness to the events; there are no major contrivances.
It makes sense that Judy makes the mistake she does in speculating that predators are going savage because of their own biology, because it’s clear that she herself thinks it’s plausible, and hasn’t seen anything yet that would disprove it. She doesn’t become unlikable to the audience, because we understand why she wouldn’t see anything wrong with it in that moment. At the same time, we also understand Nick’s disappointment and anger toward her when she starts displaying the same kind of attitude that disillusioned him with Zootopia years before, and the rift it causes in their friendship and among the other citizens is legitimately sad to watch. The tension in the two friends’ confrontation immediately following the press conference, as well as during key points in their investigation, is effective without ever becoming too uncomfortable for the movie’s overall tone. The same can be said for the chase scenes in the rainforest and on the train tracks, which could have become too chaotic or self-indulgent, but go on just long enough to be fun to watch and move the plot along.
The majority of Disney’s recent animated films are funny, but the humor in Zootopia is especially great. Seeing Judy’s father teach her entirely the wrong lesson regarding her life goals in the first act is hilarious, yet it still feels good-natured on his part. Like Enchanted and The Princess and the Frog, it pokes fun at classic Disney conventions and even includes send-ups to their biggest successes (mainly Frozen) along with outside classics like The Godfather and a surprising homage to Breaking Bad. These references aren’t such that you need to have a close familiarity with the media to enjoy the film as a whole, but they can enhance the enjoyment of their own particular scenes to those who do. There are also a decent amount of animal gags beyond just pun-based plays on popular brand names. Jokes like “[addressing] the elephant in the room” and showing a wolf disguising himself as a sheep to go undercover were clearly the writers having some fun with the world they had created, but the best animal-related jokes in my opinion were the ones that referenced how rabbits are notoriously…fertile, let’s say.
All of this is topped off with a score by Michael Giacchino that takes influence from sounds associated with the wild mixed in with an urban environment, as well as some ’80s cop movie homages in the more lighthearted action scenes. It’s just one more example of someone involved in the production of Zootopia having a ton of fun in making it, which consistently shows through in the film itself.
Judy’s exposition in her elementary school talent show during the film’s prologue is sort of justified in it being a performance by a group of children doing the equivalent of a history report, but when it goes into her talking about Zootopia, it feels like a weird tangent that’s obviously just for the audience’s benefit rather than for any characters who are watching the play. The epilogue also has a couple of issues, one being the sudden revelation that an antidote has been developed to the substance that predators were being targeted with. It’s believable that this could happen, but it’s explained so little that it feels tacked on for the sake of having a completely happy ending, which ends up being a tad bit rushed through. The other problem is the final scene, which is — par for the course in a modern animated comedy — a dance party. Yes, they find a way to justify it with the characters all being at a Gazelle concert, and it’s always fun when a movie finds a way to incorporate its end credits into the movie itself, but this kind of finale has been done far too many times in the last several years, and it’s glaringly obvious that it’s not much more than a way to orchestrate an upbeat ending without having to put in the effort of making it specific to the story.
I did say earlier that the film’s Disney references do a good job at enhancing its comedic tone, but a few are either forced or dated. Chief Bogo’s “Let It Go” reference is awkward when you look at it as an actual line of dialogue purely in the context of the scene in this movie. Sure, it’s funny in how meta it is, but if you look past it as a reference, it’s kind of just shoved in there to be something the audience can recognize. Duke Weaselton’s (which is a reference I did enjoy) “movies that haven’t even been released yet” bit is already dated, seeing how Moana is now two years old and Gigantic wound up being canceled, and with the release of Frozen 2 next year, the visual gag won’t make any sense to future audiences, kids especially.
Bellwether’s reveal as the villain is neither surprising nor particularly interesting. There is something to be said about a character deliberately taking measures to keep an oppressed group oppressed, but it was predictable given how little else she contributes to the plot despite receiving more focus than, say, Mr. Big. It also doesn’t help that WDAS had been using this trope in every one of their films since Wreck-It Ralph. It can work if it’s done right, as it was in Coco, but audiences had already grown tired of this pattern by 2016.
Shakira’s character of Gazelle provides a few funny moments in the film with a running joke about an app that uses her likeness, but she feels out of place in the scene where Judy first arrives in Zootopia and in the sequence after Judy causes panic and distrust among the two major groups in the city. I could understand bringing Shakira in to provide a cameo and to provide a song for the soundtrack, but Gazelle doesn’t add anything to the story and just seems wedged into the cast for some added star power.
Despite some references that may not always be as universally understood as they are in today’s culture, Zootopia finds a strong comedic footing in its character interactions and quick wit, made even more fun to watch by the dynamic between two well-rounded protagonists as well as a high-energy plot that challenges them to reexamine their respective outlooks on life, and may very well do the same to viewers.
Very rarely will a family film make an effort to teach kids (and adults, since so many don’t seem to grasp this either) that prejudice goes beyond blatant bigotry and being intentionally offensive or cruel to others; it’s so deeply rooted in society that we can’t help learning it as we grow up, and as we become more involved in that society, we have to take responsibility for unlearning it, hard as that can be. It’s hardly new information to learn that prejudice stems from fear and ignorance, but the movie does a great job at showing how those factors play into our everyday life without it necessarily registering in our minds when we’re not on the receiving end of it. It advises all of us to be more observant of how prejudiced attitudes affect our own communities and the people we care about. But even as it’s being didactic, it’s not being preachy. It’s still fun and heartfelt; we listen more intently to its lessons because we care about the characters who are learning them within the story. It has its sober moments, but never takes itself more seriously than is warranted.
Zootopia is an investing and visually unique film that promotes communication and understanding between people with different backgrounds and experiences without veering into “let’s just all be friends!” territory. It also happens to be one of the funniest Disney films released in the Revival Era, as well as in the twenty-first century. Nearly everything about its execution is tightly structured and impressive in a medium that is still rarely taken seriously. It may not be quite as good as Beauty and the Beast or Up, but if you want a recent example of an animated family film that breaches the expectations of what a “kids’ film” can be, I can easily recommend this one.
Originally published at miseensense.wordpress.com on November 11, 2018.