Disney’s animated films have long had a tendency to carry some sort of message. With its run of films this decade, these messages have taken on new nuances or takes, whether it’s self-empowerment through Frozen or learning to grieve in Big Hero 6. As great as these messages are, though, they tend to be filtered to be more palatable to young audiences.
Zootopia is not that kind of film.
Instead, Zootopia tackles the topic of prejudice directly. Rather than just acknowledging prejudices exist, it aims to examine why they exist, and how detrimental they can be on a civilized society. Make no mistake, though: Zootopia is a brilliantly funny film with a great pair of leads and a true heart. Through this combination, it achieves a rare feat: an animated Disney film with serious, significant, and timely social relevance.
In a world where predators and prey have learned to coexist, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) hopes to move beyond her small town to become the first bunny police officer. With a sharp mind and unending drive, she graduates at the top of her class in the police academy and is assigned deep into Zootopia’s center – only to be stuck writing parking citations. Before long, she crosses paths with the ethically sly fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a grifter who she eventually uses to help her track down a missing otter.
If this were a story from another studio, the synopsis I provided would likely encompass the entire film, more or less. It’s to Disney’s credit that this story is significantly deeper. Once Judy and Nick begin their investigation, they’re thrown into a world where their assumptions are tested. And here’s where the seemingly random parts of this film’s promotional campaign like the focus on anthropomorphic creatures comes into play: since we can accept anthropomorphic creatures as stand-ins for humans, it’s easy to transpose the more significant story onto humans. And it’s a doozy.
In a world made of predators and prey coexisting, the otter that goes missing is one of fourteen creatures who have vanished. And the creatures all share a common trait: they’re predators. The villain makes a point of noting that predators make up 10% of the population, and should be made out as the enemy of the 90% made up of prey. Even the relationship between Judy and Nick is fraught with tensions that show how prejudice effects the way they approach each other, even if neither of them recognizes it in their behavior.
If the run of films that includes Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen and Big Hero 6 hasn’t confirmed it yet, Zootopia absolutely cements in place something I wouldn’t have believed was possible a decade ago: a new era of creative genius from Walt Disney Animation Studios. Zootopia manages to go a step further, though, and create a film that’s not just funny and relatable. It shows unquestionably how prejudice can harm a society, and how in the wrong hands it can be manipulated to further create rifts in a population. It’s a far deeper result from the film than I expected when the first trailer dropped, and a sign that Disney is truly at the top of their game right now.