Zootopia characters Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde
"Zootopia's Finest' by Frava8 on Deviant Art.

Animated films aren’t just for kids. Zootopia is a perfect example.

If you’re like most millennials, you’ve carried your love of animated films into adulthood. After all, we grew up on the burgeoning art of computer animation. It is true, too, that elements intended for adults have long been a part of children’s films.

In Zootopia, however, these elements dig a lot deeper than cheap jokes and innuendo. Consider this excerpt from the forthcoming 100 Films Every Millennial Should See.

Follow Your Dreams

Zootopia begins with a big nod to Disney’s recurring theme of ‘following your dreams.’ Young Judy Hopps is determined to do something no rabbit has done before. She dreams of becoming a big city cop and changing the world for the better. Really, this idea reflects the very image of millennials. How so?

Beginning in the 1960s, the ‘self-esteem movement’ urged parents to instill confidence in their children. Proponents encouraged parents to offer praise more abundantly than discipline. With what result?

San Diego State University psychology professor Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., tackles the issue in her book Generation Me. Twenge notes that this trend left many millennials “ill prepared for the inevitable criticism and occasional failure that is real life.” After all, “There is no self-esteem movement in the work world,” as Judy quickly learns.

From the beginning, Judy faces some very real world obstacles. For instance, her parents discourage her from doing something so “difficult, impossible even.” They evidently weren’t in on the self-esteem movement.

“You ever wondered how your mom and me got to be so darn happy?” her father asks. “We gave up on our dreams and we settled.” Their conversation concludes with the sentiment, “It’s great to have dreams, just as long as you don’t believe in them too much.”

Next, a bully injures Judy in what might be called an act of “speciesism.” The young fox Gideon Gray asserts that she’ll never be anything more than a “dumb bunny.”

Social Commentary of Zootopia

Zootopia next weaves a uniquely abstract way of viewing all types of prejudice. The film abstains from marking any type of animal with the stereotypes of the real world – those of race, gender, or religion. Instead, Zootopia delivers a clean and sterile look at discrimination, painted on a distant canvas. How?

The plight of the small herbivores like Judy and Assistant Mayor Bellwether might be likened to women facing the “glass ceiling” of sexism. The predators “going savage” and the fear this provokes in the general populace is reminiscent of the fear of radicalisation of Islamic extremists. Finally, Zootopia was released at a time when racial tensions ran high in the United States and cases of racial profiling by police officers made headlines. In Zootopia, the predators were profiled.

Possible Benefits

Of course, others may decipher the propaganda of this film differently. But in the end, Zootopia stands as a possible teaching aid for overcoming prejudice and implicit bias. We know that in the past, people have used children’s entertainment to cause discrimination. Prior to World War II, anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda was spoon-fed to children in the form of a picture book called Der Giftpilz (The Poisonous Mushroom). In each story, the Jewish people were presented as “devils” and cheaters, even seducers of good German girls. The stories bred prejudice.

Yet, stories have also been used for good. Consider an example.

An ancient text records a king’s crime against his nation. Rather than confront him directly, one of his advisers tells him a story. In it, a rich man defrauds a poor man of a beloved family pet. The king responds, “That man should die!”. To this his adviser says, “You yourself are the man.” The king got the point, and did what he could to make amends.

This example shows how presenting the facts of an injustice in a different way can prevent sentiment from interfering. By telling the story as if it’s happening to someone else, a person can more easily see their error and change their views. Perhaps where prejudice is concerned, Zootopia can do just that.

Like what you see? Stay tuned for the release of ‘100 Films Every Millennial Should See’ in late 2018.

Freelance writer, foodie, and travel junkie. A bit like Johnboy Walton, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen rolled into one. Oh, yeah, then there's that Clark Kent secret identity thing...