ZOO CRITICS

If You Wanted Animated Super-Hit Zootopia To Be Complex Enough to Solve All The World’s Problems You Forgot That Its Target Audience Still Sleeps With A Light On

You may have noticed that Disney released an animated movie a little while ago and it was a wee bit of a success. In fact, said movie, titled Zootopia, kicked both box office and critical ass. How much? As of last weekend, Disney’s tale of a mega city in a world populated by sentient animals had grossed over 338 million dollars (it captured 75 million during it’s opening weekend at the beginning of March) and has passed a billion dollars worldwide, making it only the fourth animated movie in history to pass the coveted billion dollar mark (Zootopia is still playing in hundreds of theatres even though its DVD/Blu-Ray dropped two weeks ago) and last weekend it was ranked the fifteenth highest grossing movie in North America after spending months in the top ten. It’s success has helped cement Disney’s in house animation division-which has also given us the likes of Tangled, Wreck It Ralph, Big Hero 6 and the animated uber-tale Frozen over the last few years-as an equal to their Pixar brand.

Unlike previous Disney fare though, Zootopia has a fairly poignant political message built into it. The House of the Mouse used its newest animated blockbuster to tackle issues of prejudice, racism, bigotry and discrimination, wrapped in a CGI candy wrapper. It’s especially relevant considering how successful Donald Trump’s talk of border walls, mass deportations and minorities wearing ID badges is south of the border.

Long story short, in Zootopia’s world mammals forsook their predator-prey relationship and evolved beyond their biological limitations. They all came together to create a thriving civilization, the pinnacle of which is the mega city of Zootopia. But Zootopias veneer of equality and diversity is skin deep and its society is built on layer after layer of stereotypes and social barriers. Protagonist Judy Bunny is a bright-eyed idealist whose been dreaming of escaping her home town Bunny Burrows and becoming a police officer her entire life, but its a far fetched dream and everyone (parents included) keep reminding her that a bunny has never been a police officer, a job reserved for larger animals like elephants, rhinos and hunting cats (Zooptopia’s chief of police is a wildebeest voiced brilliantly by Idris Elba). Judy manages to make it with no shortage of determination and conviction (and by taking advantage of Zootopia’s “mammal inclusion program”) but she quickly runs headfirst into real life and her values are quickly put to the test.

The movie’s central narrative conceit is that, despite what the brochures tell you, Zootopia is a very regimented society. Your species determines what you can or can’t be as well as how you’re perceived by the greater whole. Institutionalized stereotypes are the foundation of Zootopia’s society, and its passive discrimination is an accepted part of day-to-day life. When Judy first stumbles upon her eventual (and reluctant) partner, streetwise fox Nick Wild, he’s being thrown out of an ice cream parlour that refuses to serve foxes. We find out later that Nick encountered that discrimination as a child and allowed it to shape the person he would become, further perpetuating Zootopia’s cycle of bigotry.

For the most part, Zootopia was lauded by critics and audiences alike. It was pretty rare to see an animated movie, by Disney or any other studio, tackle such heavy concepts and weave them so skillfully into an animated movie with a simple, straight-forward storyline. It was a brave move during a time when the United States, still home to most of the world’s movie-goers, is so polarized over issues of race and discrimination. You could tell audiences loved it from its longevity and enormous financial success the world over. And yet, there were still some critics who pointed fingers its way, accusing it of not going far enough, of not addressing more or all forms of discrimination or prejudice and of failing to be the magic bullet to cure all America’s social ills in the 21st century.

Somewhere along the way, these pundits forgot that, no matter what the movie’s message, Zootopia’s primary audience are kids who are currently fixated on summer vacation and in a few months will be trick or treating and staying up late to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus.

Much has been made of Zootopia’s use of anthropomorphized animals to deliver its message of diversity and tolerance. Even protagonist Judy is forced to confront her own prejudices, ones she never knew she had until they bubble to the surface and inflame the growing crisis in Zootopia further. Zootopia flirts with a lot of issues, all of them relating to discrimination, and it does so as cleverly as possible without being preachy or boring. It’s crafted in a way that kids can relate to, adults can appreciate and everyone can enjoy. It’s bright, shiny, funny and remarkably self aware for an animated movie. Which just doesn’t seem to be enough for some people.

It’s amazing to see how many people are taking themselves seriously when they begin talking about how Zootopoia’s metaphor breaks down when you begin to unravel it and look at it from different perspectives. Somehow, these people forgot that the target audience are kindergarteners who have zero interest in breaking down metaphors and looking at anything from a different perspective except their fruit roll ups.

At the end of the day Zootopia accomplished its first job-make Disney a lot of money and keep the stockholders happy-and if it makes a few kids a little smarter about tolerance along the way, well that’s a bonus. Looking at their bottom line, Zootopia’s enormous success (the DVD and Blu-Ray is flying off the shelves) may convince Disney to continue making socially conscious movies. Besides, if you’re pinning your hopes for an antidote to Donald Trump on a Walt Disney animated movie, your expectations of reality need a serious adjustment.

Shayne Kempton

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