By: Andy Acton
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:24–25).
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us (I John 4:18–19).
Over the last ten years, Disney has moved away from the traditional fairy tale themes that made them a beloved entity and strived to present stories with deeper themes: Up (aging and ageism), Brave (defying the traditional princess role), Wreck-It-Ralph (villain as hero), Frozen (redefining the meaning of true love). Big Hero Six (death, grief, revenge, morality), and Inside Out (emotions, adolescence and relationships).
The recent animated feature Zootopia continues the trend of complexity by delving into timely motifs of racism, prejudice, stereotypes, bullying, brokenness, inadequacy and doubt—all to bring viewers the message that even the messiest and most flawed people can help make the world a better place.
That’s not to say that the story is heavy-handed, stuffy or way over a child’s head. Zootopia—a place where mammals have evolved beyond their primal instincts and thrive together—has a healthy dose of the humor, fun and adventure associated with Disney films. But the creators are intentional about weaving in clever dialogue and plots that allude to the problems we face as a society.
It’s clear from the beginning that Zootopia isn’t just another fantastical place where animals act like humans and is, instead, an animal metaphor that explains how humans act toward one another. Zootopia isn’t actually about animals; it’s about us. It’s about how easily we can mistreat and harm another human being.
More specifically, the movie illustrates how humans can rise above human depravity and the primal instinct to conquer and destroy others.
One of the film’s two protagonists, rookie police officer Judy Hopps, struggles to be accepted as the first bunny police officer in the city of Zootopia. Her carrot-farming parents and the water-buffalo police chief Bogo (fellow prey) have grave doubts about Judy’s abilities. Predators, such as childhood nemesis and fox Gideo Grey and street hustler and fox Nick Wilde, make fun of Judy’s ambitions (albeit in slightly different ways). Yet the sweet and well-meaning Judy also stereotypes, based on incomplete facts and conjecture, Nick and a minority group of predators who have mysteriously gone “savage.”
The other protagonist Nick, while a predator, was beaten, teased and muzzled as a kid by the other Junior Ranger Scouts (all prey), and so he vows to spend the rest of his life being a con-artist who is sly, aloof and untrusting of forming meaningful bonds with others. As an adult, Nick faces discrimination from an adult elephant that refuses to serve him a Popsicle at an ice cream shop. However, Nick also makes fun of Judy and curiously touches, without permission, the hair of Assistant Mayor Bellwether, a sheep.
The characters in Zootopia are not one-dimensional and go against stereotype as the story progresses. Mayor Lionheart, a predator with authority, mistreats other predators despite his good intentions. Another prey in a position of power concocts a serum in an effort to rid the city of all predators that makes some predators display feral behavior.
The racial allegory, evident throughout the film, invites viewers into discussions about the racism toward Blacks and other minorities that exists in our churches, communities, and nation.
Zootopia, an obvious pun on the concept of “utopia,” is also refreshingly honest about reality versus fantasy. No magical songs instantly make everyone friends, nor do the characters achieve their goals without making mistakes. Consider the lyrics to the movie’s theme song “Try Everything” by Shakira who voices the character Gazelle:
I still mess up but I’ll start again / I keep falling down/ I keep on hitting the ground / I always get up now to see what’s next.
Or Chief Bogo’s words to Judy Hopps early in the movie:
Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true! So let it go.
Of course, Judy Hopps sums it up best at the end when she profoundly tells the audience:
I thought this city would be a perfect place where everyone got along and anyone could be anything. Turns out, life’s a little bit more complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker. Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes. Which means, hey, glass half full, we all have a lot in common. And the more we try to understand one another, the more exceptional each of us will be. But we have to try. So no matter what kind of person you are, I implore you: Try. Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you.
Ultimately, Zootopia pushes us as human beings and as people of faith not simply to walk out of the theater whistling a happy tune, but to look within our hearts to discover how God calls us to see Christ in “the other” whom has been deemed unworthy. Zootopia encourages folks to set aside fear and prejudice to love more fully and perfectly. It is a difficult and messy task, but it is the kind of change that is necessary for making the world resemble God’s vision of the beloved community.
Andy Acton is the associate pastor for High School Youth at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church in Duluth, GA. Andy is a pop culture nerd who enjoys exploring the intersections of faith and TV, movies, music and comic books and has taught classes, preached sermons and written blog posts on those topics. You can contact him at [email protected] or check out his blog, http://georgiapreach.wordpress.com.