Disney has given us something very rare, a kid movie that brings some of the deepest philosophical and political arguments up to the cultural surface for discussion by adults.
Zootopia is a lot like Jonathan Swift’s classic Gulliver’s Travels, or L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wizard of Oz (not the movie). In each case, kids can read these two books and enjoy the adventures on their level, but they are both actually very thoughtful political satires meant for adults.
Zootopia enters the ranks of the great satirical classics, albeit in movie form. It does so in a way that is…well…deliciously sneaky. It pretends to be yet another drearily predictable follow-your-dreams Disney film, yet delivers a critical time bomb wrapped within the all too familiar package.
The first clue that should awaken careful viewers is the name itself: Zootopia. This is an obvious play on “utopia,” a word coined by Thomas More (1478-1535) in his political satire of the same name. In Utopia, More outlines an entirely perfected society which incorporates various dream-schemes offered by those who believed that we could create a political heaven on earth. The chosen name tells us the fate of all such dreams: utopia means “nowhere” in Latin.
Zootopia lets us know there’s a similar satirical undercurrent in the seemingly innocent kid movie about hyper-evolved animals. Zootopia is the great city where upright-walking, talking animals go to “realize their dreams,” a place where “anyone can do anything.” The main character, a very small, fluffy-cute female bunny, Judy Hopps goes there to realize her childhood dream of becoming a police officer. So far, so typical Disney.
And then a little strangeness starts to drift into the plot. In the city of Zootopia, predators and prey live and work side by side. As we find out early on, this is made possible because of their hyper-evolved state: the predators and prey alike know that, way back when, before they reached their current pacific state, predators ate prey. Lions ate gazelles, wolves ate sheep, and foxes ate cute little bunnies. But that has all been left behind by evolution and the advances of the animal society—or has it?
Hence the deep subtheme of the movie: can nature be so easily overcome, so confidently cast aside? And even more, how is our contemporary society like Zootopia?
One sign that nature cannot be lightly cast aside is that all the predators walking around Zootopia are still, very obviously predators, with really sharp teeth and claws, and big muscular bodies. Predators are made to kill, because they are made to eat meat. That is their nature, and whatever the social constructs of Zootopia, their nature is still fully evident.
Zootopia’s police force is largely made up of predators or animals (like Police Chief Bogo, the African Buffalo) who are as large and fierce as predators. That’s the police force that scrappy little Judy Hopps joins.
The viewer begins to detect the satire, especially in light of Disney Studio’s characteristic portrayal of animals. Setting the Lion King aside, in the usual Disney animal world, predators don’t eat prey, bunnies and foxes get along. Human beings are the savage ones, the real killers. Human beings are bad and savage, animals are good and peaceful. Zootopia plays on this Disneyesque expectation. In the city, the lion mayor (Leodore Lionheart) works with a sheep (Dawn Bellwether) who is the assistant mayor.
But the writers have left out or cleverly underplayed a most important question about Zootopia: if the lion doesn’t eat the sheep, well, whatdoes he eat? Carrots? Grass? He’s still got really powerful muscles, sharp claws, and long, sharp teeth—a point accentuated when Leodore Lionheart, posing for a press picture alongside Judy Hopps, says, “Okay, Officer Hopps; let’s see those teeth!”
“Smile!” But that makes clear that lion teeth aren’t for munching carrots. The predators haven’t shed their nature; it’s merely suppressed politically.
And that’s the next satirical barb delivered by the writers. The Zootopian happy mixture of predator and prey is, as it turns out, not natural, especially in regard to what it takes to work on the city’s police force. The fact that Judy Hopps was hired for the police department is the result, we find out, of the Mammal Inclusion Initiative, the Zootopian equivalent of politically correct social engineering. It’s an initiative that undergirds the Zootopian belief that “anyone can do anything.”
But can anyone really do anything? The film has some fun poking holes in this “follow your dreams” bromide, simply by allowing us to experience the different animals in Zootopia, each with its own specific nature that it cannot shed. Can Flash the Sloth—Flash works appropriately for the Department of Motor/Mammal Vehicles, and is hilariously slow—really be a sprinter? If Judy Hopps the little bunny can join the police force, can the even-littler mice she almost steps on do so as well? Can each and every animal—or human being—really doanything?
But what brings the undercurrent of satire into full view is the central driving crisis of the movie. Predators are mysteriously disappearing, and the police can’t solve the case. Judy Hopps to the rescue. But what she discovers is that the missing predators aren’t dead. They’ve been injected with a chemical made in a lab by the bad guys (yes, it does look like a meth lab), that arouses their full predator nature again. When they’re darted, they drop down on all fours and manifest the full ferocity of their predator nature.
Judy Hopps finds them kept in cages by the perplexed mayor (unbeknownst to the police department, the press, and the citizens of Zootopia). Why? Because things aren’t as rosy in Zootopia as one might think.
As it turns out, the prey, who number about 90% of the population, really aren’t all that confident that the suppressed nature of the predators will stay suppressed. If word gets out the predators are regularly dropping down on all fours and looking for lunch, there will be social and political chaos in Zootopia, building on the preys’ natural but suppressed fear.
This all gives Judy Hopps quite a shock, and several times she says something revelatory like, “We’re still animals, deep down,” or “This may have something to do with biology, with DNA.” In other words, although it might not have been the intention of the filmmakers, they unwittingly suggest nature is not so easily papered over by artificial social engineering.
Who’s the villain? The prey, in particular, assistant mayor sheep Dawn Bellwether, who is using fear of the predators to remove them from Zootopia for good. She’s the one who has the drug cooked up so that she can dart random predators, thereby turning them wild again.
The movie ends with the typical “Anyone can do anything” theme, and all the animals in Zootopia, predator and prey, happily sing along together. Typical Disney—except when you remember the satire embedded in the title. Zootopia means nowhere.
The point of a satire is to make us look at our own time, or own situation, with a new critical eye. In what way are we trying to live in Zootopia?