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Try everything, especially ‘Zootopia’

| Monday, March 14, 2016

Zootopia_WebEric Richelsen | The Observer

If “Zootopia” — the latest movie from Walt Disney Animation Studios — has a major flaw, it is the delivery of its message. Like Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles,” a film that was more overtly objectivist than some Ayn Rand works, “Zootopia” wears its heart on its sleeve.

But just because the message is hammered home doesn’t mean it is simplistic. Nay, “Zootopia,” rather than play like an overwrought parable about the importance of diversity, presents a more nuanced take.

Meet Judy Hopps, the dreamer. She’s a small town rabbit, born and raised on a carrot farm. Through an extremely over-the-top elementary school stage production that preaches “anyone can be anything,” the audience learns that Judy dreams of being a police officer in the bustling metropolis Zootopia. Judy’s ambition — noble as it is — is met with scrutiny rather than praise. “You’re just a dumb bunny!” “There’s never been a bunny cop!” Slurs and stereotypes abound, and connections with our reality are even more clearly defined when Judy mentions, “A bunny can call another bunny cute, but when another animal does it …” She doesn’t finish the sentence, and she doesn’t have to: the point is clear.

Among the haters are Judy’s own parents. “If you never try anything new, you’ll never fail,” says her father as he begs her to adopt the simple life of a carrot farmer. Judy’s parents believe in the power of limitations — in this case, a bunny’s mental capacity, size and place on the food chain — and truly fear for their daughter’s safety in a big city populated with predators. They are so repressed by their socially-constructed lot in life that they no longer embrace the fundamental truths and beauties of their identity as bunnies, visually exemplified by Judy energetically hopping while her parents simply walk. If Judy is a model for children to strive for, her parents and their misplaced affections are an only modestly exaggerated reflection of a reality that adults can relate to. But this being a children’s movie, Judy hops on.

And hop she does, to Zootopia, through the police academy then to the stage as valedictorian of her graduating class of police cadets. She protests being assigned to parking duty — as a “meter maid,” this time the epithet is sexist — but is powerless to defy, unable to become a “real cop.” On the parking ticket beat she meets Nick, a sly fox.

Well, that kind of stereotyping is exactly the kind of thing “Zootopia” is out to undermine. Nonetheless, Nick is sly, and his and Judy’s paths cross while he is in the middle of an elaborate profit-churning popsicle “hustle.”

As a predator, Nick is in the minority — most of Zootopia’s inhabitants are “cute,” “helpless” prey as opposed to predators, who pose a threat to the majority in their potential to “turn savage.” Of course, only a few of Zootopia’s predators have ever turned savage, and there is no evidence to suggest prey are incapable of turning savage as well; but that doesn’t stop the masses of prey from labeling all predators — all “Others,” as they’re referred to — as a threat, something to be feared. Where “Zootopia” excels is the extent to which it explores both sides of this predator/prey tension. Can you really condemn Judy, a survivor of a childhood fox attack, for carrying fox repellant? On the other hand, we learn that Nick wasn’t always so sly; rather, his craftiness is merely a defense mechanism born from childhood trauma. “If the world is going to see a fox as shifty and untrustworthy,” he explains, “there’s no point in trying to be anything else.” Again, for the sake of the children in the audience, “Zootopia” does not dare end on such a dour note; but adults in the room will understand Nick’s words are not theatrics, but sincere frustration.

“Zootopia,” four years in the making, turned out to be even timelier than its creators likely intended it to be. Of course they intended this movie to be a necessary commentary on the current social climate and racial tensions in America. But how could they have predicted the specifics of the 2016 political landscape? Nonetheless, “Zootopia” is incredibly pertinent to the current presidential race. Without delving into spoilers, I will say that a fear mongering, opportunistic politician seeks to vilify the predators — the minority — in order to achieve and maintain power. Sound familiar?

It’s for this depth of characters and themes — not to mention the splendors, visual wonderment, a zany plot and enough jokes to burn, that you expect from a Disney animated movie — that “Zootopia” is a must see.

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