WARNING: This post contains spoilers.
Last weekend I watched Disney’s latest animated feature Zootopia. I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about this film based on the initial teasers and how mediocre I found their prior two films Frozen and Big Hero 6 to be. Well to my surprise, when I finally watched Zootopia, I was….er, pleasantly surprised! For something that came off like a CG repeat of Robin Hood at first, I’m surprised how much this film captured my imagination.
So the running theme throughout Zootopia is that this animal universe is divided into two different class groups: predator and prey. This film largely plays as a buddy cop picture, but the division between the predator and prey classes is a constant source of tension throughout.
This isn’t the first time Disney has used animal interaction as a representative for the racial/class/etc. tension in the human world.
From this similarity, Zootopia’s and The Fox and the Hound’s handling of it goes into two different directions. In the former, the divide between predator and prey is something the two protagonists Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde were forced to accept as a part of life early in their childhoods and the rest of the movie is about the both of them learning to personally overcome their respective traumas and prejudices as their partnership/friendship blossoms. In the latter, the protagonists Tod and Copper spark a close friendship as youth, giving us viewers hope that their bond will overcome the harsh, prejudiced world around it just for those hopes to be dashed as we witness that world cruelly tear the both of them apart as they grow up.
Another difference between the two films is that the power hierarchy is much more clear in The Fox and the Hound. Dogs hunt foxes, so they’re higher up on the hierarchy. In Zootopia’s case, the divide seems quite clear for about two-thirds of the movie. Predators are higher up on the power hierarchy than prey. This is reinforced visually and through Judy’s struggle to earn respect among her fellow predator police officers. However, for the last third the hierarchy flips and the predators become the oppressed class after Judy’s statements at a press conference spark fears that any predator could go savage and attack at any minute. At this point of the movie, we are shown the traumatic childhood experience Nick went through at the hands of discriminatory prey boy scouts.
Both films end on different notes as well. Zootopia ends with Judy’s and Nick’s friendship restored and the growing tension between predators and prey quelled. The Fox and the Hound ends on a decidedly more bittersweet note. Although Tod and Copper manage to keep their bond from completely severing, the overbearing division their society is structured by still forces the both of them apart. Ironically, this is also where the paths of each movie’s different approach meets up. Despite Zootopia’s happy ending, I didn’t get the impression that it suggested that it completely solved the tension between predator and prey. There is so much more with this setup that they could explore that the movie didn’t have time to get into. Zootopia would make for an excellent sequel or series if they continue to explore the systemic and interpersonal complications of its predator/prey society. Judy may have been the first bunny police officer of Zootopia and may have fought her way to earn the respect of her fellow predator officers, but long ingrained discriminatory attitudes don’t die so quickly. Not to mention the can of worms she opened up by evoking fear and animus towards predators by giving a “biological” explanation for the instances of savagery. Those attitudes don’t die with the arrest of Asst. Mayor Bellwether either.
It’s fitting that a movie like this came out at the twilight of Barack Obama’s presidency. The city Zootopia itself (an obvious play on the word “utopia”) sells itself as a place where predators and prey co-exist together in harmony. When Judy moved there, she learned the hard way how fractured relations between predator and prey really were. Predator and prey businesses and living spaces are largely segregated. Judy was the only prey in Zootopia’s police force and she had to break a glass ceiling. America sold itself as much of the same when Barack Obama was elected as the first black president. This supposedly meant that America had become “post-racial” and that it finally solved its race problem. It proved to be just a not-very-well-hidden facade. Obama’s presidency saw a rise in racist hate groups. Unarmed black men and women are killed by police or vigilantes once every 28 hours. Economic exploitation of the black community is still as bad as it’s ever been. This doesn’t even include the discrimination faced by Hispanics, Muslims, transgender people, and all the other marginalized groups. The current front-runner for America’s next president is a white man whose campaign has courted white supremacists, has quoted the fascist leader Mussolini, was kicked off by disparaging Mexican immigrants, spoken favorably of banning Muslim immigrants, and incites violence against its dissenters. If Zootopia were made into a series, it could explore all the difference facets in which the lingering tension between predators and prey manifest. A long-running series would also be an excellent way of more realistically illustrating the slow process in which society seems to progress in that regard (with cases of regression unfortunately).
Buuuuuut… something like that might be too bold for Disney. It is, and always has been a very conservative company. It wants to appeal to as big and audience as possible (including people that may be racist), so it typically opts not to rock the boat with its material too much. They have such a fertile concept here with Zootopia though. One can only dream, I guess.
Or refer to these in the meantime.