Disney may have been making animals into people for nearly a century, but Zootopia took that to the next level, putting a breathtaking amount of world-building and sociological thought into the simple idea of different talking species all interacting in the same place. Isaiah 11:6 says that in Heaven, the lion and the lamb (and the wolf, leopard, goat and calf) shall live together in peace, so in Zootopia (which rhymes with that other fictional society striving for an ideal, Thomas More’s Utopia), the lion and lamb share a mayoral office.
No, it’s not a perfect society, and things can get worse for everyone in a hurry if a powerful figure starts playing on primal fears. But it’s also a town built on hope that everyone can rise above their baser natures. In short, the world of Zootopia is an “animal world” that’s a fur-lined mirror for our own. But it’s not the first, and Disney’s team of animators probably studied at least a few other media properties that had tried this trick before.
Here are 10 Other Notable Zootopias!
10. Babar (1931)
He might not have the currency of his contemporaries, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, but Babar the Elephant was a fixture of children’s entertainment for generations. An African elephant who discovers European civilization, Babar brings what he’s learned back to his people, including balloon travel, contemporary French fashions, and an absolute, if benevolent, monarchy.
Yyyyyeah, you can see why some details of this story might have played better in late-colonial England and France than 21st-century multi-ethnic America, but the basic idea that animals could simply learn to be civilized is still at Zootopia‘s heart.
9. Robin Hood (1973)
Zootopia has its roots in Robin Hood, Disney’s first full-length clothes-wearing talking-animals movie, released some time after Bambi and The Jungle Book. We’ve already noted the design similarity (down to the clothes they wear) between Robin Hood and Nick Wilde. And any Robin Hood story can’t help but deal with social themes somewhat: it is, after all, the story of a hero who robs from the rich to give to the poor because the rich are taxing the poor more than they can stand to give.
Granted, the story doesn’t get much use out of the all-anthropomorphic cast except for more charmingly exaggerated appearances: this is pretty much the same Sherwood Forest as it is in any other Robin Hood story, but it’s still an interesting new way of looking at that world.
8. Maus (1980-1991)
Like Robin Hood, Maus is a real-life human story as told by talking animals, but it’s a far, far darker one, and the choice of species is more pointed. Art Spiegelman’s autobiographical magnum opus concerns his relationship with his father Vladek at the end of his life, and his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust. Spiegelman does a straight-up racial translation: the Jews are all mice, the Germans cats, the Poles pigs and so on.
Along with Spiegelman’s stark, charcoal-like art, the speciation draws us into the “alternate reality” the Nazis created, where different races might as well have been different species. Zootopia‘s profiling themes may have their roots as far back as this.
7. Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew (1981-1983)
Roy Thomas was the first major writer and editor to succeed Stan Lee at Marvel Comics, and his co-creations include Ultron, Ghost Rider and Iron Fist. But it was at DC Comics where he teamed with animator and underground cartoonist Scott Shaw to create the Zoo Crew and their world, known variously as Earth-C and Earth-26, a crazy mix of funny-animal comics from the 1940s and 1950s, 1960s-1980s superhero tropes, and real-life celebrities and then-current blockbuster movies (their names shamelessly-animal-punned). When Zootopia trots out Pig Hero 6 DVDs and uses real-life news anchor Peter Mansbridge to play Peter Moosebridge, it’s borrowing from Captain Carrot‘s playbook.
6. Peter Porker, The Spectacular Spider-Ham (1985-1987)
Kids love Spider-Man. But so do older fans, and you can’t always make something that both young kids and young adults want to read. So in the 1980s, when Spider-Man was dealing with grad school and having masked rooftop makeouts with the Black Cat, a kid-friendly, more exaggerated spider-pig was swinging from a web and fighting giant mechanical wolves and hypnotic heavy metal music, as well as plenty of animal supervillains.
Marvel was more interested in animalizing old Marvel characters than mixing influences quite so furiously as Thomas and Shaw did, but the series still dropped references to a number of we’ll-tell-you-about-them-when-you’re-older celebrities, including Joan Collins, Ozzy Osbourne, and of all people, sex columnist Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
5. DuckTales (1987-1990… & 2017-)
“Life is like a hurricane in Duckburg.” With that opening lyric, one of Disney’s most successful TV cartoons – based on the even-more-critically-acclaimed comic books of Carl Barks – introduced a generation of young fans to a world of adventure, centered on the elderly Scrooge McDuck.
Scrooge’s character was a delightful mix of the “before A Christmas Carol” and “after A Christmas Carol” versions of Ebenezer Scrooge, part money-loving miser and part warm-hearted family duck – but he was also part world traveler, and he and his nephews would often go past the confines of Duckburg in pursuit of some grand Indiana-Jones-like adventure and/or riches untold. Disney used DuckTales to make a new name for itself in the TV cartoon market, and will be reviving the property next year.
(An honorable mention goes out to the similarly adventurous Tale Spin, featuring The Jungle Book‘s Baloo and Shere Khan as a footloose aviator and ruthless mogul, respectively. It followed a couple of years later and may or may not be set in the same world: if it is, it predates DuckTales’ society by some decades, since it seems to hearken back to the golden age of aviation and television hasn’t been invented yet.)
4. Dinosaurs (1991-1994)
This posthumous Jim Henson concept didn’t have particularly memorable characters (the father Earl is your basic Fred Flintstone-Homer Simpson-Peter Griffin type) but it went further with social commentary than anybody expected. Environmental issues, females’ rights, censorship, racial conflict, body insecurity, steroids and other drugs, peer pressure, corporate crime, nanny-state concerns, pacifism, religion, commercialism… the Dinosaurs’ world was as much our own as the Flintstones’ had been.
3. Kevin and Kell (1995-present)
The setting of the longest-running daily Web-based comic is a close match for Zootopian society in some ways: like Zootopia, the town of Domain maintains a sometimes uneasy peace between two classes of animals: herbivores and carnivores. Kevin and Kell are a rabbit and a wolf in a mixed marriage, raising children who have both sets of impulses.
But whereas in Zootopia (and Captain Carrot‘s world) the eating of intelligent animals is anathema, in Domain it’s a simple fact of life, which makes those hard feelings between meat-eaters and plant-eaters a little more understandable. Somehow, cartoonist Bill Holbrook has managed to maintain a fairly dry, TV sitcom-like tone in this long-lived feature, despite its unsettling backdrop. At least Kevin hasn’t ended the world yet.
2. Cats Don’t Dance (1997)
Although it’s a world of humans and animals, the Hollywood of Cats Don’t Dance deserves a special mention for its own spin on racial tensions. Set in the late 1930s, the film follows a gang of cute animals with dreams of being big stars, but systemic racism against non-humans and her specific skills at manipulation mean that they’re all playing second fiddle to Darla Dimple, an evil reimagining of Shirley Temple.
The real-life story of Cats Don’t Dance is as full of hard luck as the production it depicts: it was conceived as a vehicle for Michael Jackson just before the sex abuse scandals started up, he withdrew and left it without star power, and then it was released around the time Time Warner absorbed its production company. With little support, it tanked at the box office, but won a couple of awards. If you love old musicals or the idea of a Depression-era pre-Zootopia, it’s worth your time.
1. Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Most of the talking-animal worlds we’ve gone over have taken America as their primary inspiration. Even when Uncle Scrooge or Vladek Spiegelman are in another nation, American values are the baseline. Kung Fu Panda animalizes the China of martial arts movies instead, with some characters’ species inspired by different styles of kung fu.
Po’s species, of course, is both native to China and the fat joke at the center of the movie, but his familiar appearance and Jack Black’s relatable performance is an English-speaking audience’s point of entry into a more foreign talking-animal kingdom. As with Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon, DreamWorks Animation is at its strongest when it finds inspiration in unusual places and fully commits to generating a whole world that feels entirely new.
This has, of course, only scratched the surface of what can be done with this idea, and if you broaden the concept to include animal societies that don’t act quite so human-like, you could start bringing in everything from Bambi to Ice Age. Still, as ever, feel free to let us know about any egregious exemptions on this list in the comments.
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