When I was growing up, I didn’t watch movies like Zootopia. I remember diversity in movies and TV shows, but I don’t really remember media that talked specifically about race. Race is a difficult topic to approach with children. It is complex: a social construction that has no scientific definition, yet is extremely prevalent today’s world. When talking about race, the bigger questions of discrimination, privilege, and socio-economic status often come into play.
Zootopia approaches these topics in ways children can understand. The movie starts off by acknowledging people feel uncomfortable, even threatened, when a society’s dark history is brought up. Judy Hopps, a school age rabbit, puts on a play for her town about how predators used to hunt prey like herself until animals evolved to respect one another. At the end of the play, Judy proclaims that since now anyone can be anything, she is going to be a police officer. After the play, a group of foxes bully Judy and tell her she can’t be a police officer, obviously threatened by Judy’s determination.
When Judy grows up and does join the police force, she claims not to have a prejudice towards predators, particularly foxes, and chastises other prey who do. However, she carries a bottle of “fox spray” with her when she goes on duty. Later, after some predators go “wild” or “savage” (aka reverting to their pre-evolved state), Judy says there might be a “biological component”. Judy realizes she’s not so high and mighty after all, and apologizes to her fox friend, Nick.
The apology and admitting that she wasn’t the enlightened rabbit she thought she was might be the best lesson children take away from Judy. Just because she made a mistake doesn’t mean Judy gives up trying to make the world a better place, in big ways and small. After her fight with Nick, Judy goes back to her family’s farm and temporarily gives up on her dream. She then gets a clue on why animals are going “savage” from the unlikeliest of places: Gideon Grey, the fox who used to bully her but has since apologized.
After Nick forgives her, he and Judy get back on the case, finally figuring out it is a serum evil sheep are injecting into predators to make them go “savage”. Judy could just go along with this, but she decides to do what is right and expose the sheep, led by the Assistant Mayor, a title created in the “Mammal Inclusion Program”.
One of the things I love most about this movie are the ways it perfectly and not-so-perfectly lines up with the human experience of race. There are some perfect parallels to racial sensitivity in this movie, such as when Judy tells Nick it is not OK to touch a sheep’s wool and when Judy tells the security guard at her building he really shouldn’t call rabbits “cute”. That is only something other rabbits should do. The security guard is very embarrassed and apologizes quite sincerely. Judy accepts his apology, and explains it’s not his fault if he didn’t know what he was doing was insensitive.
The way that the movie does not line up with real life is that there are no clearly defined groups or races representing predators and prey in humans. However, this serves well ultimately, because the characters can speak to all audiences, whether it is Judy feeling like she doesn’t fit in at the police academy because of her much too small size, or Nick having to live with the memory of being muzzled as a child by prey he considered friends.
I wish I had had a movie like Zootopia growing up. I wish I had known how to talk about race, and how to explain to my friends why some ways of treating other human beings are wrong, and dehumanizing. I hope this becomes a trend not only is Disney movies, but in children’s movies in general. I hope there are more movies in the future with hard topics shown through relatable but light-hearted scenarios. I hope that we can teach our children to rehumanize through stories before we end up with more imperialist wars, instances of racially motivated police brutality, and other acts of dehumanizing violence.