Released in 2016, Disney’s Zootopia was a hit with critics and audiences alike. Making more than a billion worldwide , being one of the American Film Institute (AFI)’s top 10 films of that year , and winning the Best Animated Feature awards at the 2017 Academy Awards , it was clear that Zootopia was a critical and commercial success. But why is it such a hit?
Apart from being another entertaining family film from Disney, many critics singled out Zootopia for being “thought-provoking”  and “subversive” . In this short “essay” I will be discussing why I feel Zootopia is one of the best animated films of the 21st century, and the messages hidden behind the façade of being just another family flick.
In Zootopia’s first scenes, we are presented with some exposition that introduces the different social classes in the animal city of Zootopia. The mayor Lionheart is, well, a lion – a big strong creature normally associated with strength, authority and command. Assistant Mayor Bellweather is submissive, tasked with doing many things for Lionheart – thus a sheep is the perfect animal for her character. Our main character Judy Hopps is a normal bunny, part of a huge family of bunnies who are all carrot farmers.
This is one of the things I love about Zootopia – beneath its family-friendly exterior it hides a powerful representation of our own society today. Like us, animals in Zootopia are forced to work for not what they want, but for what their kind are supposed to do. That is, of course, until Judy breaks this chain and decides to set off towards Zootopia to be the first bunny cop, all because she just wants to help and do the right thing.
Stereotypes and Discrimination
When Judy leaves for Zootopia, she’s given a care pack from her parents. This includes a spray can of “fox repellent”. The Hopps parents are scared and wary of foxes because of what foxes used to do – hunt for prey, including bunnies. But that doesn’t mean all foxes have malicious intentions. And that brings me to my next point: Almost all characters in the movie are stereotyped because of their species, reflecting the world we live in today where people are discriminated for their skin colour or race or gender.
Judy Hopps has been told a bunny can’t be a cop since the beginning of the movie. Though she trucks through it, she gets told by bullies (as a child/kit) and by normal citizens of Zootopia (as a grown-up). Judy herself has a stereotype towards our other main character, fox Nick Wilde – one that stems from her abusive treatment since young from bully fox Gideon Grey, and from her parents teaching her that foxes are the worst.
Nick has, too, been bullied when young simply because he is a predator. Receptionist cop Benjamin Clawhauser is seen eating a doughnut multiple times, a reference to the stereotype of real life police officers. The ZPD Chief Bogo doesn’t care about new recruits, and turns down Mrs Otterton(a normal working age citizen)’s constant pleas to find her husband. The movie constantly hints how people of power keep putting down those without it.
In Zootopia’s first act, Nick is introduced as a “sly fox” and Judy as a “dumb bunny”. By the end of the movie the roles are reversed – sly bunny, dumb fox. Both characters have broken free of their respective stereotypes; free to be whatever they intend to be. It is this that a society should strive to be, and it is even more extraordinary that Disney was able to condense this much depth into a 2 hour family film.
Nancy Tartaglione, Deadline.com, June 5 2016: “‘Zootopia’ Hops Past $1B Global Box Office; Disney’s 11th Time Over The Mark” http://deadline.com/2016/06/zootopia-passes-one-billion-worldwide-box-office-disney-1201767542/
Patrick Hipes, Deadline.com, December 8 2016: “AFI Awards: Best Of 2016 Film List Includes ‘Silence’, ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ & More” http://deadline.com/2016/12/afi-awards-film-2016-list-silence-sully-zootopia-1201867080/
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), February 26 2017: “The 89th Academy Awards” https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/2017
Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times, March 4 2016: “Review: In Zootopia, an Intrepid Bunny Chases Her Dreams” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/04/movies/zootopia-review.html
Peter Travers, Rolling Stone, March 3 2016: “Zootopia” http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/reviews/zootopia-20160303