How Disney Turned a Cute, Talking Animal Movie Into an Commentary on Race Relations
As the story goes, corrupt government officials intentionally introduced a dangerous drug into marginalized minority communities resulting in increased power for politicians and law enforcement through the manipulated fear of the middle class.
This narrative has been the subject of a number of popular conspiracy theories over the years concerning the CIA’s alleged involvement in the crack cocaine epidemic among the African American community in the mid-80s. It’s also the plot of the 55th Disney animated movie starring a group of cute, talking animals.
Most animated Disney movies cover themes like Be true to yourself!, Never give up! and other self-affirming platitudes we frequently find ourselves preaching to children. Zootopia indeed starts with some of these very same cliches as we follow a young, female rabbit named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin). Judy is trying desperately and against all odds to become the first ever rabbit police officer in the all-mammal town of Zootopia. Her friends tell her it isn’t possible, her family tells her it isn’t possible and when she finally enrolls at the Zootopia Police Academy, she’s literally told over and over again it’s not possible.
But, like nearly all Disney heroes, Judy has a plucky resolve and is determined to succeed and succeed she does. Before the first act is over she’s graduated at the top of her class and arrives wide-eyed and bushy-tailed (pun intended) and ready to take down some major criminals. Except her chief (a brusque Idris Elba) doesn’t take her seriously and her first, and all subsequent, assignments are handing out parking violations in a neon orange vest. Despite all of her hard work, Judy is looked at as the force’s token female.
Later in the film, Judy (who, at this point, has teamed with a grifter fox named Nick, voiced with prickly precision by Jason Bateman) stumbles upon a series of missing persons (animals?) cases that are all linked; specifically they’re all predators, and more telling, they’re all being held by the government. Further investigation reveals a group of sheep cooking a plant extract in a pseudo-meth lab (in case this connection is lost on the audience, there’s a Breaking Bad reference for good measure) at the behest of a corrupt government official. The drug is distilled into capsule form and designed specifically for predators, turning them “savage.” As the film’s villain later reveals, 90% of the population is prey and a healthy fear of the minority, and a reminder that those minorities are “dangerous,” is good for maintaining power.
That overarching theme is not the only moment of racial commentary. There are plenty of other smaller moments in the film as well.
When a fellow Zootopian refers to Judy as “cute,” she’s quick to remind him, “we can call ourselves cute,” but that other species should avoid using such an offensive term. Later, as a ewe is typing at a computer, another character can’t help but touch the puffs of wool on her head, not unlike white people’s fascination with touching (often without asking) the natural hair of African American women.
How much, if any, of this will resonate with kids watching the movie? Will they just be laughing at the sloths working at the DMV (an admittedly hilarious scene)? More importantly, how did the film’s creative team get this film made? At Disney?!
While it seems almost backwards given what we know of Disney’s risk-averse strategy, the film was actually pushed into a socio-political film noir. Zootopia was originally pitched, and greenlit, on a simple premise: what if humans never existed and animals evolved into a complex society?
Disney Animation’s Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, the same man who literally bear-hugged director Byron Howard (“Simba on Pride Rock style,” as Howard remembers it) when he pitched the simple idea of a movie about talking animals, actually doubled down on the idea of a talking animal movie with something to say.
“They were very proud of what we were trying to do,” says writer and co-director Jared Bush of the Disney executives. As the film evolved (it originally followed a rabbit named Jack Savage who left the town of Zootopia for the South Seas), Lasseter, Disney chairman Alan Horn and Disney CEO Bob Iger, began to respond to the film’s new angle and encouraged them to abandon the original storyline and start fresh.
It wasn’t complicated in terms of us getting Disney behind it. The complicated part was once they bought into it, realizing we actually had to do it.
Like many animated movies, including Pixar latest release The Good Dinosaur, Zootopia had a complicated development process and much of the film was scrapped and rewritten about halfway through production. The film, as originally conceived, was far more straightforward and was more of a comedic spy movie than a detective noir. Director Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) was asked to drop a project he was actively developing* to assist Howard in retooling Zootopia while maintaining its release schedule.
(*That project was rumored to be a Wreck-It Ralph sequel, though Moore would neither confirm nor deny that film’s existence in active development.)
As they developed and expanded upon the new thematic elements of the film, Disney collaborated with Dr. Shakti Butler, the founder & president of the non-profit firm World Trust and a self-professed “dynamic educator in the field of diversity and racial equity.” Butler would watch early storyboard reels and offer feedback to the mostly white male creative team. There was one specific scene when a predator (this movie’s analog for minorities) was visiting a fancy hotel for the first time and stealing mini bottles of shampoo. Co-writer Phil Johnston recalls Butler watching that scene and telling them, “You’re reinforcing an idea you probably shouldn’t be there. Think about that.”
Adds Johnston: “That’s why it’s some important to have other people coming to look at what you’re doing. Especially when you’re dealing with something that has all these subtleties to it. You need to have other voices look at it to keep it straight.”
Once the new story and themes were locked, Disney gently began pushing the team to break new ground. Moore recalls, “Our bosses were just like, ‘We love this!’ No one ever said, ‘You’re taking us into uncomfortable areas.’ We were embraced and encouraged to push the movie to where it is now.”
“It wasn’t complicated in terms of us getting Disney behind it,” Bush says, laughing. “The complicated part was once they bought into it, realizing we actually had to do it.”
If Frozen caught flak for the perceived “gay agenda” themes (Was Elsa a lesbian and was “Let It Go” her coming out theme?) and WALL-E for its environmental friendly, global warming message, Zootopia is sure to rankle some in Disney’s conservative audience, especially considering the current political climate.
But, Moore says that the film was never intended to be overtly political and that it’s commentary on racial bias was a side effect of simply trying to tell an honest story from a genuine place. “If people want to watch a movie about a fox and rabbit becoming friends and turn that into an evil, agenda-pushing practice, then what can you say?” He pauses and with a big smile says, “BRING IT ON.”