‘Zootopia’: Disney Hired Writers With Big Balls To Help Explain Racism, Sexism

After months of spending our Friday nights being bored to tears, my husband decided to take our family our to the movies.

When we got there, we allowed our son to pick the movie, and he chose Zootopia (or as he kept saying in his 7-year-old voice, “Zootokia.”)

It wasn’t even 5 minutes into the movie before we knew that the movie’s writers brought an extra large set of balls when drafting the script. The movie was excellent, but the last thing we expected to see was an animated film about sexism, racism, and equality.

The movie centers around a bunny named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who had big dreams of becoming a police officer in Zootopia, which is sort of like a New York City for wild animals. In Zootopia, all animals live together in harmony, predator or not.

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Of course, her parents were not feeling her decision to become a cop, and wanted to know why she wasn’t content with staying on the farm, like her 225 other siblings. Plus, the title of “police officer” usually went to larger animals, like elephants, rhinos, and tigers.

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But she’s a girl bunny with big dreams, and when the time came, she became Zootopia’s first bunny officer, which meant that she was the first mammal to benefit from a mammal-inclusion diversity initiative ordered by Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons).

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As soon as she walked into the station for her first day at her new gig, she was met by the desk officer, Clawhauser, who fawned over how absolutely adorable she was. Her response was an interesting way to address the uncomfortable conversation (which reminded my husband and I about conversations surrounded around explaining the n-word).

You probably didn’t know, but a bunny can call another bunny cute, but when other animals do it, it’s a little…

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Later that morning, as her water buffalo boss Capt. Bogo (Idris Elba) handed out assignments for the day. He hands out assignments surrounding the disappearance of 14 animals. Everyone gets a case file except for Judy, because Bogo isn’t okay with handing the assignment to a rookie. This is the other part that surprised us – a conversation about species-ism/racism. Wow.

According to Variety, there’s a reason for that.

The “Zootopia” screenplay (on which the directors share credit with Phil Johnston and co-helmer Jared Bush) actually turns real-world racial sensitivity issues into something of a talking point — as when Judy notes that a bunny can call another bunny “cute,” but it’s not OK when another animal does it.

Along the way, she meets a fox, Nicke Wilde (Jason Bateman) who is up to no good. Eventually Nick helps Judy with the missing animals case, and this is where the wild ride begins. My husband and I found ourselves cringing at the beginning of every joke, and then laughing, crying, or looking shocked at the end of it.

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For instance, while getting assistance on the case from Assistant Mayor Bellwether (comedienne Jenny Slate), Nick starts patting her wool. Judy discourages him from doing it, by saying, “You can’t do that!” To which Nick responds, ‘But it’s so soft.”

You already know this was about patting black people’s hair. Thank God someone said it. But at the beginning of the joke, we were scared about how they would finish presenting it. By the end, we were cracking up.

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Plus, the movie was beautifully animated, and we absolutely loved the other film references, like “The Godfather,” “Chinatown,” and “Breaking Bad.” My husband and I were taken aback by the references at first, but after some thought, we realized that it wasn’t a bad idea for them to include that into the storyline. In fact, it was been brilliant. Bustle writer Casey Cipriani explains my exact same sentiments best:

Including classic movie references in kids’ films gives artists a chance to lovingly honor the works that have inspired them, yes, but it also helps introduce young folks to really great movies before it might be appropriate for them to see them. I was lucky enough to have a movie nerd of a dad who showed me a lot of classic stuff when I was a child, but for kids for whom an interest in old cinema might not be a readily available option, the references hidden in kid-appropriate entertainment have a major effect.

It’s worth noting that end of the film left my 7-year-old son confused. There was a part of the film were Judy speaks at a press conference about the missing animals case. She says something off color about how predators had returned to their savage ways. Although she recovered from her mistake, and apologized to her friend Nick (a predator), my son seemed confused by the ending. He was probably wondering the same thing I was: She apologized, but that doesn’t mean that it’s okay.

This is where I think the movie was difficult to watch. We teach our son that there’s some words you can’t take back. Judy called the other animals savage, which reminded us of the thousands of times we tried to talk to our son about race and racism. Although I didn’t like how the lesson was presented (perhaps because I’m sensitive about the subject overall), it’s a great starting point for young kids.

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Overall, I really think that this is a great film to take your kids to see. If you’re a parent, you may cringe at some of the jokes, but you’ll probably do it anyway if conversations about sexism, racism, or equality makes you uncomfortable anyway. Eventually, you’ll have to have these talks with your kids, and this Zootopia is a wonderful introduction to the subjects.

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5 thoughts on “‘Zootopia’: Disney Hired Writers With Big Balls To Help Explain Racism, Sexism

  1. I noticed a reference that I’m not sure was intentional. Doug’s phone number on the post-it on Bellweather’s computer. The area code is “805” which is the area code for Simi Valley, CA. If you are familiar with the Rodney King trial, it was held in Simi Valley and after that case, Simi was considered a “racist” town, sadly. (I am from there) I am wondering if they included that little detail because Doug is part of the group trying to “eliminate” the “bad guys/predators”.

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    1. I left LA shortly before the trial, but I do remember that area code.

      There were so many subliminals thrown around the movie, I wouldn’t doubt that they did that on purpose. You definitely have a good eye!

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  2. In terms of the confusion, I think there’s more to apologies than things being “okay” and “not okay.” In this case, Judy apologized to Nick BECAUSE what she said was not okay, and both of them knew it. She royally messed up. We teach kids to apologize when they do something wrong, but if we also teach them “sorry doesn’t cut it,” it undermines the purpose of an apology in and of itself and also trains people not to be forgiving. Talk about confusion! It also cheapens a heartfelt apology and belittles it to having no meaning at all. Also, when Judy apologized, Nick never said “it’s okay,” although you can tell that he accepted her apology. Even saying “I accept your apology” is different than saying “It’s okay.” “It’s okay” implies that it’s no big deal if the offending action is repeated. Also, It would have been a whole different movie if Nick hadn’t forgiven Judy for her mistake.

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    1. I feel you, and after some thought, I agree with you.

      But we also try teach our son to be slow to react, and quick to think. The fact of the matter is that words hurt, and there are some things that you can’t take back. Even if an apology is heartfelt.

      What’s interesting was that after talking about the movie with him, he understood a lot more why it was important to watch what you say to people, and to try to get a better understand where other people are coming from before making a comment that may hurt them.

      Thanks for reading!

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  3. I agree, actually, with the sentiment that he forgave her a bit too quickly. I believe part of it may have been that the timespan between her transgression and the actual apology was, on film around 10-15 minutes, while in the story it was something like 1-2 months.

    The story also focuses closely on Judy rather than Nick, which makes it difficult to read him since not only is he not in focus, but he’s also a very subtle character with many emotional walls. I would have liked to have seen him more visibly hurting during the scene at the bridge, to show that he had a right to be hurt, but instead he goes through whatever emotional reaction to Judy’s apology with his face away from the audience.

    I think if I was making this a teachable moment, though, I’d emphasize that Judy made it clear she didn’t feel entitled to or even expect forgiveness, and that ultimately Nick chose whether or not to forgive her himself. That he chose to do so shows that he is selfless, and certainly has to do with the fact that she seems to be one of the few good friends he’s ever had, but it was still his and only his decision. It’s a good way to teach that apologies aren’t a “look how sorry I am lets go back to normal,” but a “I know I hurt you, and I’m sorry, I would like to still be friends, but I understand if that’s not an option.”

    But I think this movie is such a good one to teach kids important things! Like the concept of microaggressions is so well represented by Judy calling Nick an “articulate fella,” and just generally shows that just because a racist or prejudiced act wasn’t intentional or was influenced by subconscious training doesn’t mean that its not hurtful or in need of an apology. A very refreshing take on the subject, and an especially accurate one for a Disney film to cover.

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