Movies, News, Reviews 2016-03-07

Zootopia: Was It Timing or Was It Luck?

Animated films are planned out at least couple years in advance. There is the initial idea, the pitch meeting, various explorations into the viability of the story and so on. At some point, everything is greenlit and the animators go to work. It’s a long process. That begs the question, did the people behind Zootopia know how relevant their story was going to be in an election year, or was it an amazing coincidence?Before we start, be warned there are spoilers ahead.

Zootopia is the story of Judy Hopps, a bunny from the farmlands who comes to Zootopia to fulfill a dream of being a police officer. To her, Zootopia is a gleaming example of cats and dogs living together without the mass hysteria. Unfortunately, it turns out that the “living together” part is debatable and Judy herself unwittingly injects the mass hysteria into the story.

It’s impossible to discuss the relevancy of Zootopia without going into specific (read: spoiler) aspects of the story itself. The film is all about racism and different races living together. There are specific scenes dealing with haves, have-nots and the dynamics between the majority and the minority.

Judy Hopps represents the attempt to break through racially-stratified boundaries. She’s a female rabbit, trying to become a police officer where all of Zootopia’s officers are male and large animals such as rhinos and polar bears. Judy’s unwilling partner is Nick Wilde, her exact opposite. He is a fox, therefore a predator counterpart to Judy, male and has completely submitted to the racial stereotypes that society has forced on him.

Officer Bogo and Mayor Lionheart represent institutional racism. Bogo can listen to reason when forced to, but tends views others by racial standards until they prove themselves. He’s unwilling to have Judy on his rosters because she’s a rabbit and he refuses to hear testimony from Nick because he’s a fox. Mayor Lionheart in turn has an assistant mayor, Dawn Bellweather, that he treats like dirt because she’s a lamb. He brought her into the mayoral office because he wanted to get the lamb vote, not because he respects her presence. Because of this, Dawn becomes a beleaguered secretary to Lionheart, rather than official with the respect her title would suggest.

Dawn, for her part, becomes the main villain of the story, having concocted a plan to seize power by poisoning the predators in Zootopia. This will cause racial divisions against the predators, a minority, and will allow her to displace Lionheart. It’s suggested obliquely that this will become part of a larger plot to reduce predators to second-class citizens and ensure that prey animals maintain political power forever.

Let’s take a break from this for a moment and talk about our actual reality. Donald Trump, as of this writing, is well on the way to becoming a presidential candidate for the Republican party. His platform, if it can be called that, is based largely on exacerbating fears and anger concerning racial differences. Here is a choice quote from a recent event:

You know, we have a divided country, folks. We have a terrible president who happens to be African-American. There has never been a greater division than just about what we have right now. The hatred, the animosity. I will bring people together. You watch.

Notice how he weaves the “African-American” comment in there. It has no real relevance, but he knows if he puts it in there, he can play on the racial sentiments of the crowd. The difference between Trump and Dawn Bellweather is that Zootopia’s society was so stable Dawn had to go around drugging predator citizens so that they would go savage and scare the population. Trump just has to widen existing social rifts.

Bogo, it almost goes without saying, can be compared to the recent spate of racially-related police scandals and Lionheart can be compared to everything from Washington DC to #OscarsSoWhite. In both cases they are the casual racism that is somewhat invisible until pointed out or revealed in some kind trigger event. Judy herself isn’t beyond this. She accidentally instigates anti-predator hysteria by suggesting that the predators that have gone savage did so because it’s their nature. Hers is the innocent and unwitting racism.

This of course brings us back to the question of “was this planned or was this luck?” These films have to be conceived and greenlit so far in advance, it’s hard to believe that they would have come up with the idea once Donald Trump began his campaign. At the same time, however, it’s just too coincidental that the film releases just before the General Election. Further, while the film would always be relevant due to America’s ongoing racial issues, it feels particularly relevant now when those issues are being thrust into so much of one’s daily affairs.

If this was planned all along, it is a brilliant move and amazing prescient. If this was all coincidental, then we have a cinematic event for the history books.

It wasn’t a bad film, either.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.