“Zootopia” is one of the best films I’ve seen about racism, prejudice and police brutality, and it illuminates those issues with talking animals. (Don’t worry, it’s not too heavy-handed to watch stoned.) The animation stars Judy Hopps, an idealistic girl bunny from rural carrot farming country who dreams of becoming a do-gooder policewoman on the mean streets of Zootopia. She is generally discouraged from the profession by friends and family, because bunnies are sweet and small as compared to most police animals (typically of the predator variety).
But Hopps graduates from police academy and makes it to Zootopia anyway, a city teeming with every kind of species imaginable, not unlike New York; there’s an arctic tundra district with polar bears, a jungle district housing jaguars, and renegade creatures who live on the sidelines of the culture, like a wise-guy fox named Nick who befriends Hopps. The visual dynamism of the city is a feast for bloodshot eyes, and the anthropomorphized animals are a delight; there’s a sexy, curvy pop star named Gazelle (voiced by Shakira), and the DMV is run by literal sloths, moving at a maddeningly sluggish pace.
Unfortunately, the city’s segregation allows the animals to nurse stiff prejudices against one another. Hopps has learned from her bunny clan to be fearful of foxes, who are notoriously deceptive (plus a fox bullied her growing up). Hopps’ police chief doesn’t think she’s capable of chasing down criminals, so he assigns her insulting meter maid duties. All the creatures judge each other based on their respective species, not on their individual characteristics. Sound familiar?
Crime in Zootopia is kicked up a notch when citizens begin going “savage,” reverting back to their baser animal instincts and lashing out violently. Hopps gets involved in the case, but when she flippantly notices that all the animals going savage happen to be predators (no prey), a public panic circulates. Suddenly all prey are suspicious and fearful of predators.
Hopps wants to be a good cop, struggling to find a solution to the savage infection. One of the film’s most tender revelations comes when tough-as-nails Nick reveals he was bullied as a kid for being a “sly fox,” which led to him becoming a con artist. He figured fighting bigoted ideas about fox behavior was a losing battle, so he conceded early on. Indeed, prejudice can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The simplicity with which “Zootopia” proves these harsh and tragic truths will resonate with adults, but also with the younger generation who so desperately need to learn these lessons in their formative years.