How Zootopia Gets Timely Social Commentary Right

Zootopia (2016) trailer and poster

This weekend, Disney's latest animated feature, Zootopia opens nationwide. Already the film is earning high praise (read our review) for its stunning animation, excellent voice work, its many laugh-out-loud moments, and charming story. It's also gaining recognition for delivering a dose of timely and relevant social commentary about discrimination and prejudice - and doing so in an uncharacteristically overt manner than is typical for the House of Mouse.

Not that it's unheard of for a children's movie to include strong messages - The Iron Giant featured anti-war and anti-gun themes, FernGully tackled deforestation, and Inside Out is construed by some as an exploration of depression - but with Zootopia their intent is clear and concise. Though Zootopia's themes of tolerance and acceptance are by no means hidden, they never muddy the film or make it excessively moralistic or preachy. Zootopia smartly inserts its social commentary, using it as a natural element of the story and avoiding its message of empathy from coming across as either hamfisted or insincere.

Zootopia broaches these sensitive issues without feeling overwhelmed by an agenda and it does this by recognizing its audience, paralleling our own world without needing to replicate it exactly, and keeping its tone cheerful and lighthearted. A tall order, to be sure, but Zootopia's filmmakers proved up to the task and any future family films would do well to take note.

Know The Audience

Zootopia Social Commentary Know The Audience

Understanding your audience is key in practically everything, but especially with movies. In the case of a children's movie it can be even trickier, because first and foremost you want the film to appeal to children, but in order to score big at the box office it needs to appeal across all ages. If the film is too juvenile, only children will care to see it, but go too far the other way and parents won't find it appropriate for kids. Studios like Pixar and Disney not only understand this, but use it to their advantage, which more often than not results in their animated films becoming some of today's most popular and profitable movies.

Zootopia benefits from this way of thinking more than any other children's movie in recent memory. The story is heartwarming but not overly sentimental, striking a balance between genuine emotion and exciting adventure. There are frightening moments that put the protagonists in peril, but the threats are never too scary. The comedy is top notch, with jokes that get laughs from everyone to some that fly over the little ones' heads. But more importantly, Zootopia doesn't shy away from addressing the prejudice found in even this society of anthropomorphized mammals. In fact, Zootopia shines a light on this behavior at every age, from the schoolyard bully to a dismissive mayor, driving home the point that its lessons of compassion and empathy apply to everyone, not just children.

So much has been made of how timely Zootopia's message is in our current political climate dominated by fear and xenophobic rhetoric, but most if not all that relevance is lost on kids. Instead, it's the adults watching Zootopia who are making connections between, say, Chief Bogo underestimating Judy because she's a bunny and a woman police officer not receiving the same respect as a man in her position. This wouldn't be happening if Zootopia was looked at as only a "kids movie." These analogies aren't inherent in the movie, but by appealing to an audience with a wide range of experiences, Zootopia encourages us to make comparisons between its world and ours.

Meaningful Parallels

For as much buzz as Zootopia has been earning for its willingness to include such poignant social commentary, it wasn't the filmmakers' intention to make a "message movie." Rather, the concepts we recognize as prejudice and discrimination grew out of the world Zootopia presents: a city in where mammals of all kinds, be they predator or prey, live among each other. That thousands of years ago the predators were hunting the prey for food isn't ignored, and in fact informs how these animals treat each other. Some are distrustful of predators, others consider prey weak and useless, but this wildly diverse group of animals must still find a way to live together.

Zootopia creates a different world in where we can learn to better understand our own. It doesn't mirror our world exactly, but because civilized societies require the same give and take, many of the struggles we experience also crop up in Zootopia. Nothing in the movie is directly representative of problems we face within our society, but there are comparisons that can and should be made. Zootopia encourages this line of thinking with the language it employs. When Judy remarks that only bunnies can call other bunnies "cute", some will undoubtedly read this as a play on slurs being reclaimed by the groups they were initially intended to degrade. Later on when she makes statements during a press conference that imply all predators as potentially dangerous, that it's something in their biology that makes them more aggressive, her language mimics the ignorant, blanket statements our own public officials make about entire nationalities or religious affiliations. Even the film's visual language is reminiscent of how people behave, like when the city's prey population begins acting openly fearful of predators and there's a scene of a bunny mother hugging her child more closely, quietly pulling them away from the tiger one seat over.

Zootopia allows the audience to draw meaningful parallels where they see them. There aren't any specific metaphors and no character is a cipher for any particular gender or race. Instead, Zootopia embraces a broader theme of empathy and acceptance, asking us to treat each other as individuals and not stereotypes.

An Upbeat Tone

Zootopia - Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy Hopps

Yet, perhaps what is most important about Zootopia's use of social commentary is that though it touches on some heavy subjects, it never forgets to be a entertaining romp. The movie doesn't become bogged down under the weight of social justice, keeping its tone upbeat and cheerful. That Zootopia retains its positive outlook is in thanks to the filmmakers' somewhat last minute decision to switch the film's focus away from Nick and onto Judy.

As the film was initially pitched, Nick was the main character and it was through him the audience would first be introduced to the bustling mammalian metropolis. But Nick is a jaded, disillusioned character, where as Judy is optimistic, a bit naive, and always striving to see the best in others. Through her eyes we first come to see Zootopia as a city full of promise, where any mammal can be anything they wish to be. Of course, bitter reality soon comes crashing in, but Judy stays positive. When relegated to meter maid her first day on the job, Judy doesn't begrudgingly do the work, she excels at it. Her can-do attitude is infectious, even rubbing off of on Nick, who over the course of the film learns to believe he too can be more than the sly fox society has labelled him.

But Judy isn't without her own bigotry. When she sets off for Zootopia her fearful parents give her mace, specifically fox mace, and she carries it with her even after she and Nick begin working together. What makes Judy inspiring, however, is that she owns up to her prejudice. She recognizes her comments during the press conference were ignorant and hurtful, and then works to right the wrongs caused by her statements. Judy embodies the very message she delivers at the end of the film: "Life's a little bit messy. We all make mistakes. No matter what type of animal you are, change starts with you."


Children's movies are so often full of platitudes like "Follow your dreams!" or "Be true to yourself!", but Zootopia's message is one that's not only relevant but necessary. If we can't learn to empathize with those different from ourselves, then we're allowing ourselves to be ruled by fear, and a fearful society cannot endure. Like the mammals of Zootopia, we too must recognize that though we're different, we're also in many ways the same, and only through that commonality can we ever hope to peacefully coexist. This is what Zootopia makes abundantly clear, and it does so without being heavy-handed or preachy, leaving the animals to lead by example.

Zootopia is now playing in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D theaters.

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