Struggling to talk to your kids about race and privilege? Disney’s “Zootopia” has you covered

Foxy friends.
Foxy friends.
Image: Disney via YouTube
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Most of the time, we get the pop culture we deserve–not the pop culture we need. And that’s what makes Zootopia, Disney Animation’s newest feature film, so important. The movie is already a blockbuster hit, scoring a Disney-record $74 million in its opening weekend. But what’s truly noteworthy about Zootopia is that it’s an epic allegory for the intricate ways in which race, gender, and difference both enrich and complicate our lives.

And it couldn’t be more timely. In an era in which kids are more aware of issues of identity than ever before, parents often face questions from their offspring that are difficult to answer. Yet most of us recognize that trying to shelter children from the realities of prejudice and inequality does little to protect them. In fact, dodging such questions often leaves children vulnerable to potentially more cruel revelations from less empathic sources.

Grace Hwang Lynch, over at Mom.Me, writes about the heart-wrenching experience of trying to explain US presidential candidate Donald Trump’s stance on immigration to her 10-year-old son, who worries that his grandparents will be deported. At Romper, Margaret Jacobsen talks about the experience of being a black mother on the day it was announced that the officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice would not be indicted. Closer to home, a friend of mine shared on Facebook recently that her nine-year-old son noticed some of his classmates were calling out peers who didn’t “belong” in America, based on their appearance, ancestry or accent.

Zootopia gives parents a way to inoculate their children against the impact of such incidents by starting conversations on these topics from a position that’s both candid and safe. The film moves the complicated politics of multicultural identity into a world where the primary dynamics that fragment humanity—race and socialized gender roles—are swapped out for the more familiar ones that divide up the animal kingdom: “predators versus prey,” “large versus small.” In the world of Zootopia, carnivores and herbivores, earth-shakers and tiny scuttlers, live side by side in peace. But it’s a peace fraught with tension, bearing the scars, literal and figurative, of a long history of antipathy.

The end result is a society that mostly works–but only because it rests on a base foundation of segregation and social inequality. Some of this is practical. Jungle cats aren’t built to hang out in sub-zero arctic habitats, so they and their fellow tropical species live in a climate-controlled jungle. Rodents are assigned a walled mini-municipality to protect themselves against wayward paws.

But some of Zootopia’s societal mores have more cultural origins. A scene in which midsize mammal Nick Wilde (a fox, played by Jason Bateman) tries to purchase ice cream at a store built for elephants and other large-scale critters leads to an exchange that could seem in place in the Jim Crow South.

Size also defines political power, making Zootopia a kind of blithe animal apartheid. The mayor is a husky male lion. The city’s law enforcement consists exclusively of burly beasts with intimidating expressions and attitudes. But since prey outnumber predators by a factor of nine to one, the beleaguered assistant mayor (a female lamb), convinces her boss to launch the Mammal Inclusion Initiative to appease the herbivore electorate. The Affirmative Action-like program succeeds in recruiting Judy Hopps (a rabbit, played by Ginnifer Goodwin) as the ZPD’s first mini-mammal officer.

Struggling to keep up and fit into an environment designed for larger, louder creatures, Judy finds herself forced to work twice as hard to overcome real and oppressive obstacles. These include dismissive trainers at the police academy, snickering brethren in blue, and even her station’s oversized furniture. The challenges don’t faze her. Despite her size, she’s quick to correct those who try to diminish or “big-splain” her. (When she’s referred to as “cute,” she responds by saying that “Only a bunny can call another bunny cute”). And yet, her triply marginalized status as a small, female herbivore is central to her characterization. Intersectionality!

All of this makes Zootopia remarkable—and hopefully, pivotal. No movie in recent memory has addressed issues of race, gender, xenophobia, and stereotyping in such a frank and open fashion, all while remaining engaging and comprehensible to young children. No work in the Disney-Pixar canon better demonstrates how the infusion of Pixar’s DNA into its Disney Animation sibling has reenergized the classic studio. (Both divisions are now run by Pixar co-founder John Lasseter.) Moreover, the merger has triggered an evolutionary cascade that’s let Disney leapfrog Pixar itself in creativity, depth, and richness of storytelling.

Disney’s animated films have often dealt with external threats, crises and complications. Even though its cartoon canon seems anodyne at first glance, darkness, death, and sacrifice bubble right beneath the surface. (Disney didn’t shy away from killing Bambi’s mother, after all.) What was always missing in classic Disney animated features, however, was a sense of the internal life of its characters. Reflection by Disney animated protagonists is almost always presented via grandiose musical numbers, which dull their emotional impact with distracting spectacle.

Pixar, meanwhile, has excelled at placing the interior life of its characters front and center. This focus that achieved a nearly self-parodic peak with Inside Out, movie about how even feelings have feelings. But the studio has generally eschewed addressing the darker aspects of the “real world,” particularly the social forces that are increasingly responsible for the turbulence that kids experience in their emotional landscape. Pixar films tend to push traumatic incidents offscreen, alluding to them obliquely or suppressing them entirely.

In Finding Nemo, for example, the moment most similar to the shocking death of Bambi’s mother is an early sequence that shows Nemo’s mother confronting a barracuda. Nemo is only present as an insensate egg at the time, and his father Marlin is conveniently knocked unconscious in the fray. Viewers only know of the mother’s death circumstantially. She’s gone. Probably eaten, given the context. But who can be sure? In contrast with Bambi, we don’t hear the gunshot. We don’t see the slow dawn of horror on a young child’s face. That’s not the Pixar way.

The bottom line is that Zootopia is the animated film we need—an accessible allegory for an increasingly complicated era, made possible by the long-overdue merger of the narrative strengths of these two studio siblings. The creative success of the end result–a work that’s both socially conscious and engaged with the emotional subconscious–speaks for itself. The world of children’s animation may never be the same. Or so we can hope.