Zootopia (2016)

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I’m closing in on the end of my Disney film-watching endeavor (and coincidentally, getting awfully close to finishing “the shelf” as well).  The second-to-last film on my list was Zootopia, one of Disney’s most recent features and yet another that I had yet to see. (I’m looking like a bad Disney fan with all of these recent movies I haven’t watched yet, aren’t I?)  I had heard good things about this one, and my affinity for big-eyed cartoon animals assured that I’d find at least something to enjoy here.

What surprised me though was the actual plot of the film. Disney’s latest films don’t shy away from addressing more adult topics, but Zootopia’s focus was exceedingly adult-oriented.  The film centers around Judy Hopps, a small-town bunny who dreams of traveling to the big city and becoming the first bunny-cop.  Her dreams are realized, but it turns out it’s not as simple as it seems.  Her boss doesn’t treat her with respect, thinking she can’t handle the difficult job of being a police officer and relegates her to being a meter maid.  Judy doesn’t give up though, demanding she be given a chance to prove herself and earn a spot on the force.

This plot is pretty innocuous, and doesn’t sound too controversial. All in all, it sounds like a decent, run-of-the-mill Disney plot.  What stands out here though is the entire storyline which shows how Judy is going to accomplish her goals.  The film heavily focuses on the concepts of prejudice.  Predators are “going savage” in the town, causing all of the prey to become wary of their neighbors.  What transpires is a wholly adult conflict, with people distrusting those around them, or those who are “different” from them.  Obviously here “predator” and “prey” is a symbol for various races or ethnicity, using different animal species as a placeholder for the diversity we face as humans.

I don’t object to Disney films addressing adult topics, but it was surprising just how prevalent the idea was throughout the film.  There were far more serious scenes than light-hearted ones, creating a much darker, sobering tone for the movie than I ever could have guessed. Yes, there are moments of levity, but they are sprinkled throughout far more serious-minded scenes, bringing the overall feel of the film down to a much more realistic level.  Using animals to tell this story helps to soften the content a bit, but it’s still exceedingly obvious what the movie is really getting at.

There’s plenty to say about this movie, but I just can’t quite find the words.  I enjoyed it, and yet it felt more geared towards adults than anyone else.  Do children even realize the deeper themes being addressed here? Maybe I’m not giving kids enough credit, but it just feels like maybe it would be over their heads a bit.  I can’t fault Disney for wanting to teach a moral in their movies, especially when said moral feels applicable to our everyday lives.   It was just an unexpected twist for Disney, to find a movie that felt a bit more like a PSA than anything else. It was good, but it felt just a bit too heavy-handed for a kid’s film. I fully acknowledge that it’s an important lesson, but there’s just something about it that feels off to me. Maybe it’s the sad realization that we live in the 21st century and are just now getting around to teaching children to treat one another as equals, regardless of race, ethnicity, or any other distinguishing factor.  Seeing a Disney movie address this topic reminds us that there’s a need for it in the first place, and it’s a bit saddening to realize that.  I’m not looking to bash Zootopia, because I did genuinely like it and thought it did a good job of presenting an adult topic in an accessible way for children; it was just a little too realistic for the normally magical Disney, and took some getting used to.  The moral is certainly a vast improvement over what certain earlier Disney films teach us, so if nothing else at least the company is progressing with the times. It’s just sad to think that we’re still at a point where films like this need to be made, and that tolerance isn’t just a norm that we all automatically subscribe to. Maybe I’m reading a bit too much into this (it is just an animated movie, after all).  Either way it’s a really good film, just be aware that if you’re looking for a light-hearted, fluff film that doesn’t make you think, you’ll probably be disappointed.

-Jess

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