Zootopia, Disney’s latest animated feature, is as cuddly and familiar as they come. It stars adorable talking animals in human-like clothes who work adorable, human-like jobs in places like farms, ice cream shops, and police departments. And at first, it seems to embrace the same message touted by most children’s movies of the past decade: You can be anything you want to be, if you just work hard and believe.
That mantra and movie magic may have worked to turn a sewer rat into a five-star French chef in Ratatouille, a snail into an Indy 500 champion in Turbo, and a chubby panda into a master martial artist in Kung Fu Panda. But in Zootopia, we quickly learn, life is more complicated than that. Forget a lack of self-esteem—these fluffy heroes’ primary obstacles are insidious real-world forces like racism, sexism, fear, and corruption. As a hulking Cape buffalo voiced by Idris Elba snaps at our bunny protagonist, Judy Hopps (an effusively charming Ginnifer Goodwin), “Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and your insipid dreams magically come true.”
And it isn’t. Which is what makes Zootopia—a smart, truly fun mystery movie brimming with whimsy, sharp humor and instantly lovable characters—so refreshing, if not subversive. Here we have a blockbuster animated film from the kingpin of children’s entertainment daring to discuss topics as politically fraught as racial profiling. Sure, it spins its manic, colorful yarn with cute (and of course, eminently merchandisable) animals. But its allegory for the sometimes-ugliness of real life is transparent enough for both kids and adults to understand. In a year when the leading Republican presidential frontrunner has made xenophobia, Islamophobia and general bigotry a core part of his platform of lunacy, Zootopia makes a gutsy (if at times jumbled) attempt at breaking down the evils of prejudice.
We meet Judy Hopps, a farm-raised bunny with big-city dreams of becoming a cop despite no rabbit before her ever having done so, as a kit in a school play, re-enacting how predators and prey overcame their long, bloody history to live together in supposed harmony. Brazenly ignoring the fact that she is easily squash-able by all her fellow recruits, Judy learns to use her size to her advantage, aces her way through police academy, and is assigned to a unit in Zootopia, a city whose motto is “anyone can be anything.” (That few audience members will know to roll their eyes at this is proof of how pervasive the “magic feather syndrome” has become in kids’ movies. Zootopia, thankfully, is in on the joke.)
Judy, an idealist, rebuffs her worried parents’ attempts to arm her with anti-fox repellent, since she believes foxes’ reputations for being untrustworthy and criminal is just a stereotype. But after second-guessing herself, she begins carrying it around. Judy doesn’t think of herself as prejudiced (who does?), yet more than once she finds herself instinctively reaching for that little can. And despite her best intentions, she keeps jumping to the wrong conclusions about predators, including sly, charming con man Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman), a fox she hustles into helping her solve a missing person’s case.
Zootopia could have easily devolved into preachy clichés—“don’t judge a book by its cover,” et al—but to its credit, it continually works to both subvert audience expectations and undercut the biases and assumptions of its heroes. Judy pats herself on the back for putting a racist (anti-fox-ist?) ice cream shop owner in his place, but is aghast to see that the fox she just helped, Nick, is actually running a neighborhood-wide scam. Later, Nick, who grew up poor, explains that he once wanted to be a Boy Scout, but was strapped into a muzzle during initiation and bullied for being a predator. “If the world’s only gonna see a fox as shifty and untrustworthy, there’s no point trying to be anything else,” he says.
Nick jokingly calls Judy “emotional” and doubts her driving skills because she’s female—the same reason her callous boss first assigns her to parking duty rather than an active case. Judy patiently explains at one point that it’s OK for a bunny to call another bunny “cute,” but if another animal says it, “well…” she trails off, making the N-word parallel clear. And in one astounding moment, Judy—again, a well-intentioned, open-minded young bunny—actually praises Nick for being “articulate,” a tone-deaf word that smacks of condescension. (Just ask Joe Biden, who unwisely used it to describe Barack Obama in 2007.)
A city-wide mystery over why a handful of predators have reverted back to their pre-Zootopian, “savage” ways leaves the animal city divided by fear and hysteria. Suddenly all predators are deemed ticking time bombs, regardless of species or background. One particularly cutting scene shows a bunny mom on a train subtly pulling her daughter away from the tiger seated next to her. Elsewhere, in news footage, we see rival protests in front of government buildings, with prey shouting at predators to “go back where you came from.”
Part of the trouble with Zootopia’s animal kingdom-wide metaphor for race and prejudice, however, comes with a press conference in which Judy, now a hero cop looked up to by the city’s inhabitants, cites the “biology” of predators as a likely explanation for why they’ve reverted back to “savagery.” Real-life wackos have claimed others’ inferior “biology” and inherent “savagery” as reasons for their racism, too. But in real life, non-white people in America have never held the power that predators in Zootopia once did over prey. Making predators the film’s stand-ins for oppressed minorities simply doesn’t work.
While—spoiler alert—we do eventually learn that Judy was wrong and both predators and prey are susceptible to the drug-like poisoning responsible for the attacks, in real life, we know that she is right. Predators’ biology does make them dangerous. If a rabbit and a tiger were left on a train together, that rabbit’s as good as stew. Zootopia ostensibly tries explaining this away by positing that in this world, animals have long evolved past their most primitive instincts (they do talk and wear tiny suits now, after all). But whether or not that evolution eliminated predators’ desire to eat prey, or whether they simply have better manners these days, is left confoundingly vague.
This murkiest part of the analogy (and trust me when I say this is not reading too much into the film—it wants us to draw 8,000 real-life parallels) is a strange oversight in an otherwise whip-smart, progressive movie. One person could watch and find an impassioned case against ignorance and stereotyping. A Trump voter, on the other hand, is more likely to cherry-pick more justification for their mistrust of those who look or sound different.
Still, you’ve got to admire the film for going where no mainstream children’s comedy has gone before in sparking discussion about present-day discrimination. It does everything it can to ensure that no parent comes away explaining to their kid that racism existed “back then” but not now (characters use iPhone lookalikes, watch 24/7 cable news, even reference Frozen). And while hard work and self-esteem still go a long way for a furry outcast looking to achieve his or her dreams, empathy, an open mind, and an understanding of the world in all its messy complexity go a lot further. It’s not a perfect message, but it’s a solid one that more kids—and adults—could stand to hear.