As an Asian-American man, I am aware of prejudices and stereotypes. On my first day of high school, a girl asked me, in all seriousness, if I was a “Jap” or a “Chink.” She then commented on how my english was “very good.” I responded by thanking her, as I had been practicing for 15 years. I guess it should come as no surprise to anyone that I responded very well to Disney’s newest animated movie, Zootopia (directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore).
Zootopia is set in a world where predators and prey of all shapes and sizes live together in harmony. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a rabbit who dreams of becoming a police officer for the grand city of Zootopia. She faces opposition of all kind from her peers, mainly because, well, she’s a rabbit, in a police force mainly populated by lions, rhinos and other large animals. In an effort to earn her rightful place in the force and prove herself worthy of being on the force to her boss, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), Judy finds herself trying to solve a series of missing animals with a smooth-talking fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).
The movie setting is as typical disney as it can be with anthropomorphized animals, while the genre can most readily be described as a mix between buddy comedy with elements of detective neo-noir. An odd mix to be sure but the movie never shies away from it. In fact, the one thing I can say about this is that this movie is never subtle. For underneath this detective fiction is a story about prejudice and stereotyping.
Judy Hopps, being a rabbit, is thought of as weak and small. Nick Wilde, being a fox, is seen as being sly and a liar. And this is something that the movie never talk about subtly or mention in passing. These are things that have shaped these characters lives, and something that they live with and in certain instances, forced to confront. Though Judy Hopps says that not all foxes are bad or are liars, she still finds herself initially suspicious of Nick, even though he had at that point in the movie not done anything wrong. This internalized prejudice shapes her personality in a way that even she doesn’t realize.
And if hearing talk about this kind of social issue surprising to hear in a review of a Disney film, you are absolutely allowed to be. I was absolutely surprised by how unflinching the film is when addressing these issues. And, in my opinion, that is the correct way to address it. Children are a lot tougher and smarter than we often give them credit for. They do tend to understand certain things when we think they shouldn’t or can’t. Zootopia does something that can make or break a film: talking about the issue in a way that everyone, and I mean everyone, can understand.
I feel that in the future, Zootopia will still be remembered as the animated film with animals that bravely talked about prejudice and stereotypes in a way that most other films would have been too afraid to. They used a medium as a tool to teach kids an important lesson about it and how best to fix it. And more importantly, it gave an Asian-American man hope in the human race in general.