ByGrace Callahan, writer at
Grace Callahan

Zootopia is phenomenal for a large number of reasons:

  • 1. First Disney movie ever without a romantic sub-plot
  • 2. A subtle reminder that we're all animals, and that there are a lot of other animals out there too...
  • 3. We all hate how slow the DMV is

I could go on...but I'm totally in love with the main point: Boldly addressing "overcoming systemic racism" in a children's cartoon. For those of you who haven't seen it, Judy Hopps is a bunny who is the first police officer to come from a race of "prey." She's assigned to find a predator who's gone missing, and she accidentally becomes co-detectives with Nick Wilde, a fox and "predator" that she meets while doing her initial job as a meter maid. Judy finds the missing predator she's looking for along with 13 more—all of whom are acting erratically.

We find out later that this is because the government is injecting them with drugs.

But before Judy uncovers that, she says in a press conference that it's possible that the predators are "reverting back to their savage ways," causing a huge fight with her friend Nick. Then they uncover the fact that the mayor's-assistant-turned-mayor was behind the whole thing, she goes to jail, and life goes back to normal.

Along the way, there are a lot of racially insensitive moments. Some are innocuous and funny, like when Nick touches a sheep's wool clearly out of curiosity without asking, or when a coworker calls Judy "cute," which she informs him is "only okay when bunnies say that." But hearing a line in a children's movie about "reverting back to their savage ways" has to make anyone's jaw drop. We also see a lovable cheetah receptionist get demoted because his bosses didn't think seeing a predator at the front desk "sent the right message." And then there are the other subtle-but-clear examples, like a bunny sitting next to a tiger—who's doing nothing but reading the paper—on the subway, and holding her baby closer to her than normal.

It's obvious that the more innocuous moments can affect prey and predator alike, but the deep systemic racism is targeted only at predators. However, what sets this movie apart is that the people orchestrating everything are staying out of the spotlight. They are planting fear into the community of prey, having them ultimately do the discriminatory dirty work that they didn't set out to do.

This is a beneficial angle to show in America where many White Americans (on their Facebook pages and IRL) feel like they have to explain to minorities how they "aren't racist." But this movie shifts the conversation to show that the orchestration of racism is carried out by parties that have a vested interest in seeing that the sides don't get along. It further shows that that even when the "prey" have good intentions or only fall for it out of fear, it still hurts the "predators." It takes away the ability to say "I wasn't trying to be racist, so there's no way I hurt you."

Because it's a Disney movie, the animals' jobs are all restored, prey stop fearing predators, and it ends with a Shakira concert about how everyone should get along. That being said, the damage that happens during the show is real. Judy and Nick almost stop being friends because he can't believe that she would have horrible ideas about predators—even though they've been force-fed to her through the government scheme. At first, Judy is shocked and angered by Nick's reaction, but later, she comes to her senses and realizes that he is right to be hurt. After all, she did just say horrible things about a group of animals that she doesn't know.

The best scene in the movie, in my honest opinion, is when Judy goes to apologize to Nick.

She's been tipped off about the drugs, and needs his help.

"I know you'll never forgive me, and I don't blame you. What I said was irresponsible and small-minded, and predators shouldn't suffer because of my mistakes. But I need your help. And afterwards, you can hate me, and that would be fine, because I was a horrible friend, and I hurt you."

This is a brutally honest way to view current race relations in America. Many people are unaware—sometimes willfully unaware—of their how their actions and words can hurt people in other groups. This is a powerful moment of becoming aware of how much hurt she caused her friend—and how sad that made her.

The true hope in this scene is from them both being able to work together again after a fight. They both realize that Judy was small-minded and that, while unintentional, it was really hurtful. They both know that she won't ever say something like that again, and they continue to work together. Nick had his time to be justifiably angry, and Judy respected that and respected that her words and actions were enough to lose friendship over—but she was lucky enough that Nick could move past it with her.

Shifting the discussion on race from the false narrative of "two warring classes" was a great move on Disney's part. They illustrated numerous moving pieces that really go into misunderstandings between people of various races, and showed—by example—ways to work through those misunderstandings and defeat the handful of people doing it for political power.

Zootopia is in theaters now! What did you think of the movie? Let us know in the comments section below.


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