Note: Spoilers for Zootopia ahead
I just came back from the theater after having seen Disney's Zootopia, and I have a lot on my mind. First, the basics: I enjoyed the movie, the animation was amazing, the plot was exciting, etc. I mean, c'mon, who couldn't love Mr. Big?
However, this film was much more than a fun, action-packed adventure. It dealt with several themes that I picked up on, all of different levels of complexity. In increasing order of complexity, here are the ones I am going to touch on:
- Not giving up
The first theme is not giving up. If you were to ask the youngest kids leaving the theater after seeing Zootopia what the theme of the movie is, they would say this one. The movie showed that if one does not give up on their dreams, he/she can succeed, even it seems difficult or even impossible. While Zootopia is an integrated society, there were clear places for each society. Thus, "cute" bunnies, who are prey, had no place in the big city of Zootopia, much less its elite police force. So, when Judy Hopps, a bunny who grew up on a farm, dreams of being a police officer, she is laughed at by her parents, community, and police academy peers. Those who doubted her definitely had grounds too, considering a bunny had never been a police officer before and she would face significant physical challenges. However, through determination and ingenuity, she made it onto the police force and, eventually, became a full-blown police officer. Thus, Judy proved that perseverance can make dreams can true.
The next theme is change. By change, I mean the change that an individual and a species can undergo. In the beginning of the movie, Judy explains that at one point, predator and prey did not get along, but after years of evolution, the species making up the predator and prey groups changed to be more civilized, so much so that they could live together in harmony. This is the situation we see in the beginning of the movie. However, as predators begin to "go savage", the initial explanation is that the predators' biology, their instincts, that are causing this behavior. At this point in the movie, the audience believes that animals really can't change and it is in their nature to be primitive and "savage". It is later uncovered that the predators are "going savage" not because of their biology, but because they are being hit with pellets made of night-howlers, a flower that causes animals to "go savage". The fact that there was an external cause for the predators' behavior shows that permanent change is possible. The movie suggests that former enemies can evolve to work alongside each other.
Another theme of the movie is stereotyping. This theme is particularly well done because both predator and prey (bunnies in particularly) stereotype each other. Judy is the target of stereotypes, which result in her being viewed as incapable of being anything besides a carrot farmer. She has to fight this perception to fulfill her dreams. Nick Wilde is stereotyped against because he is a fox. This causes nobody to trust him and for everyone to dismiss him as a sly fox. Nick was more negatively affected by his stereotype than Judy was, as he figured he should act like a sly fox because he would be perceived as one no matter what. While Nick and Judy were both able to overcome their respective stereotypes, the movie made clear that the stereotypes were bad. They inhibited the animals' true potential and allowed Bellwether to later use these stereotypes to play on an emotion I will discuss later: fear.
A more complex theme is corruption. What makes this such an interesting theme is how it is occurring on so many levels. First, there is corruption at Zootopia Police Department. Chief Bogo is not doing his duty to the city because he is letting personal bias control his assignment making. He did not allocate the appropriate amount of resources to finding the 14 missing mammals, which city hall pegged as a number one priority. Also, he unfairly found ways to try to fire Judy because he did not want a bunny on the force. Next, there was corruption at the mayoral level. Mayor Lionheart did in fact know where the missing mammals were: in a secret government lab. While he did have good intentions, he hid the predators that "went savage" in a hidden lab in order to figure out what was wrong with them. He would probably argue that this was in Zootopia's best interest, but like most politicians, he had ulterior motives. He really wanted to preserve predators' good image to remain in power. This makes sense because he is a lion after all. He knew that he would lose his power if predators were viewed as "savage", considering he is the king predator. Surprisingly, this wasn't even the greatest instance of corruption. Former Assistant Mayor Bellwether was the most conniving and corrupt member of the Zootopia government. While Chief Bogo was corrupt on account of his biases and Mayor Lionheart was corrupt in order to avoid a PR disaster, Former Assistant Mayor Bellwether was corrupt in order to gain power at the expense of others. Bellwether was willing to ruin others in order to gain power. She justified this because she thought that prey had been wronged, so it was fair for them to have control. The problem is, Zootopia is not set up like a dictatorship as far as we know. People cannot just take power because they feel that they are entitled to. The theme of corruption is one of the most relevant themes in the whole movie because, unfortunately, it is so prevalent today. Today, our government is so incredibly inefficient mainly because government officials at all levels do not do the jobs they were elected/hired to do, rather they do what suits them best. This is a scary thing, and Zootopia is really trying to tell us something.
Finally, the most complex and most relevant theme in the movie is fear. More specifically, the use of fear to divide and isolate groups of people or, in this case, animals. Former Assistant Mayor Bellwether was revealed to be the main villain of the movie, as she was masterminding the whole plan behind the predators' "going savage". As it turns out, she was the leader of a group of sheep who were manufacturing pellets made out of the night-howler flower and shooting carefully selected target predators in order to make them seem as if they were "going savage" at random. The audience and our main duo did not suspect Former Assistant Mayor Bellwether to be evil, because, while she occasionally seemed frustrated at her poor treatment by Mayor Lionheart, she seemed essentially sweet and innocent. Also, she preyed upon Judy's feelings of being pushed around by constantly reminding her that, "the little guys gotta stick together". After Mayor Lionheart was arrested for his cover-up of the missing mammal case, the then Assistant Mayor Bellwether became the Mayor. Right before she was arrested, Former Assistant Mayor Bellwether ominously said, "Fear always works". She began implementing anti-predator policies, inciting public fear. As she reminded Judy multiple times, "90% of Zootopia is prey". The public began to see all predators as primitive and inferior. Bellwether used fear of the minority to isolate them, creating a sense of superiority among the prey.
WAIT A MINUTE, DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR?! If it does, don't be surprised. This is happening in our country right now. While I am not certain that the writers of Zootopia had this in mind when writing their movie, this is almost identical to the actions of one candidate in this 2016 election: Donald Trump. That's right, an animated movie about anthropomorphic animals living in a big city is analogous to the U.S. presidential election. Let's examine the similarities between Bellwether and Trump. Both are likable and relatable, Bellwether because she speaks for the little guy and represents the general population and Trump because he is funny and isn't afraid to say what he thinks. Both try to unite the majority against a minority. Both use fear as a way to isolate the minority. Both use single examples of bad members of the minority to isolate the whole group. Bellwether used "savage" predators to demonize predators, while Trump uses examples of "Mexican rapists and criminals" to demonize Mexicans and examples of "Muslim terrorists" to demonize Muslims. Time will tell if Zootopia's messages reach the public.