[This article discusses plot points of Zootopia that may be considered SPOILERS.]
Disney movies are no strangers to being accused of containing hidden messages. Whether it’s subliminal naughty bits in posters, dirty words being spelled out in the clouds, or people swearing that a fast-talking character said something filthy, combing the Mouse House’s product for veiled secrets is a national pastime — and not always with ill intent. Some have suggested that The Little Mermaid could be viewed as a relevant metaphor for transgender youth, while Frozen’s theme song ‘Let It Go’ was almost-immediately adopted by the gay community as a “coming out” anthem.
But sometimes you don’t have to wait for the audience to read something into a movie. In fact, according to a recent report, Disney’s latest animated feature Zootopia has big things on it’s furry mind, such as racial profiling.
From the film’s trailers, audiences have learned Zootopia is about an ultramodern city where animals of all species have evolved to speak, wear clothes, hold human-like jobs and live together in relative harmony. Viewers may have also gleaned that it follows the adventures of a rabbit named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) who aims to be the city’s first policewoman of her species — only to discover that she’s not taken seriously because policework is thought to be a job only for larger, stronger animals. But it now appears that the story (and the species-as-discrimination metaphor) goes significantly deeper than that.
According to a report from HitFix, the film’s plot (which involves Judy teaming up with a con-artist Fox voiced by Jason Bateman) takes a topical turn when Officer Hopps actually locates a group of missing animals. As it turns out, they’re all members of predatory species who disappeared after inexplicably “going savage,” i.e. reverting to their pre-evolved hunt-and-kill wild mindset. But when reporting this, Judy suggests the actions are related to their biology. Her actions inadvertently lead to an outbreak of discrimination and profiling of predators — who constitute a minority in Zootopia’s population.
Obviously, it goes without saying that in a talking-animal movie things will eventually work and Judy will redeem herself by discovering the real culprit behind whatever caused the missing predators to go savage. Nevertheless, it’s still surprising that Disney would opt to build one of their major family releases around tackling a topical and controversial issue. Racial profiling is at the center of several fierce debates in American culture, and the idea of a minority group being singled out by the police as somehow more suspicious or culturally predisposed to crime and violence by virtue of their background is the essence of activist movements like #BlackLivesMatter and others.
Granted, just about every movie, TV show or book is about something other than the literal plot of its storyline. This is true whether we’re talking about full-blown metaphor (i.e. The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe is about Christianity, the X-Men movies are about racial and sexual discrimination) or scenarios open to interpretation, like how some chose to read the have-sex-and-die slasher movies of the ’80s and ’90s like Friday the 13th as analogies for fears of AIDS. But what is unusual is for a major studio with global business ambitions to be so (apparently) up front about it. Disney usually steers clear of direct controversy, especially when it comes to race.
Zootopia hits theaters on March 4, 2016.