Why You Should Take Your Kids (And Yourself) To See Zootopia

I’m not usually supportive of movies with oppression narratives that don’t feature actual oppressed groups of people (see: The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, etc.) — or at least, not of that aspect of them (I’ve been a diehard Potterhead for around ten years). When an oppression narrative is written in a way that mimics real life but takes out anything that actually makes it look like real life, the reaction is more that of guilt-free, black and white outrage that stays within the walls of the theater, rather than actual prolonged thought.

“These people are so evil! How could they treat all those people like that? But, I mean, they’re all white and white people aren’t actually oppressed, so that means it’s just fantasy and I don’t have to think about it anymore after I leave the theater.”

Zootopia, however, intrigued me because there weren’t any people. And it’s meant for kids! A movie about racism that’s intended for kids, doesn’t have any people, and includes frequent animal puns? Count me in.

The setup is pretty simple: long ago, predators ate prey and everything was violent and savage — but now, though there may still be some prejudice in the rural areas where Judy is from, over in the shining city of Zootopia all animals live together in peace and harmony and anyone can be anything!

Back home, Judy is told she will never achieve her dream of being a cop because she’s a bunny. But, although her size puts her at a disadvantage in training, Judy works hard, graduates top of her class, and become the first bunny cop.

Not so different from other kids’ movies, right? Protagonist is told they can’t do something, protagonist works hard and does it anyway, protagonist lives happily ever after. But here’s where Zootopia differs: Judy’s happily-ever-after is more of a kind-of-happily-but-mostly-really-complicated-ever-after.

Even though she’s achieved her goal against all odds, she’s still stereotyped and treated unfairly. While the other animals are given daring jobs that challenge their abilities, Judy is given parking duty. In the shining city of Zootopia, where anyone can be anything, one of the first people Judy tries to apprehend disregards her and tells her she’ll never be anything but a dumb bunny.

Now, this is way farther than I’ve ever seen any kids’ movie take racism, so I would’ve still been overjoyed if Disney had left it there, but they went ahead and took it a step further.

The animal who is racist towards Judy is racist towards her because he’s been the target of racism so often he’s learned to play by the racists’ rules.

Well, I guess, two steps further, since then Judy is racist to the animal who was racist to her because other people were racist to him. (This is the point where I check the logo on my DVD to make sure Disney really made this.)

This choice to raise the stakes just a little higher is what sets Zootopia apart from its peers. While many kids’ movies leave the message at “don’t bully, treat everyone fairly, the bad guy is bad and you shouldn’t be them, etc.,” Zootopia went ahead and allowed its protagonist to mess up and do things characteristically bad guys would do.

I’ll admit, I got a little confused at that point. I guess you get into a certain mode when you’re watching a movie that you think is predictable, and you start looking for certain things that you’re accustomed to seeing. “But, what’s the metaphor?”* I thought, “Who’s the bad guy?”

And the answer is, of course, that there is no “bad guy.” Well, not when it comes to Judy and Nick, at least — or even Gideon Grey, the fox who bullied Judy as a child and as an adult sincerely apologized to her for it. There are good characters who made bad choices and acted on bad parts of themselves, but later realized their mistakes and apologized for them.

That may not sound like much, but in Zootopia, the apologies aren’t just an “Oops, sorry,” and the movie keeps going. Judy gets a whole scene dedicated to hers. Gideon Grey doesn’t try to brush his mistakes off with “But, you know, I was young.” They both own up to what they did wrong, make their regret for their actions and new understanding of why it was wrong clear, and promise to do better.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s an extremely important thing to tell kids — especially in today’s callout culture, where the aim too often is just to “blast” the other person, rather than to actually try to see whose points hold water and acknowledge it if you realize yours don’t. Or even just in the realm of movies that tell kids to be the hero who’s always good and just and right; it’s nice to have a film that acknowledges that that’s the goal, but we don’t always live up to it right away and that’s okay.

The other important aspect of both apology scenes is that the characters who came forward and sincerely apologized were forgiven. People mess up. It doesn’t make them “problematic trash” that you should stop liking immediately and burn anything that has to do with them.

Zootopia is a movie that makes racism feel approachable to people who just learned it still exists, and one that will still give experts on the topic things to think about. It’s a movie that has somehow managed to make racism comfortable to discuss without diluting it too much.

And when the cast is entirely made up of animals, it leaves it up to the viewer to ask, “which one is me?” It lets people’s guards down. They don’t want to look like the bad guy, and they don’t have to. They just have to think for a while.

While still remaining upbeat and entertaining for younger kids, Zootopia doesn’t try to oversimplify the tangled and complex mess that is racism.

Also there are sloth jokes. And elephant puns. And moles from The Godfather.


*(Side note: I did come up with a metaphor, though, for that one bit and someone with art skills should totally draw it ’cause I really like it and for some reason most of the “Zootopia characters reimagined as humans” fan art has most of them as white people and that just doesn’t make any sense to me but that’s a different topic so anyway here’s the metaphor: Judy is a petite black woman with big grey fro-pigtails and Nick is a gruff-looking Muslim man and that’s why they both face the specific types of discrimination that they do.)

Hannah is a 17-year-old homeschooled senior from Maryland. She has too many interests and could not pick just one in time to go to college this fall, so she is spending this year trying to figure out the best way to pursue all of them at once. Hannah is currently studying classical voice, writing, film, and a little bit of art.


Inside Out & Mental Health

As someone with mental disorders, I have to say I was a little nervous to see Inside Out.  The way the movie delved into the human mind in such a peppy, caricatured way both worried and interested me.  Would it stay in the realm of humor and light-heartedness, or would it maybe explore what might happen when all someone’s emotions aren’t quite in check? Could this movie, perhaps, provide people with a comprehensible metaphor for disorders?

Half of me went into the theater hoping for the latter, wishing for a movie aimed at kids to finally tackle mental disorders — and the other half of me hoped they’d stay well away from the area, lest they should just make mental disorders even more misunderstood.  I tried not to invest myself too much in the film, so I wouldn’t be too disappointed if it took a turn for the worse, but by the end of the movie, I could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Disney/Pixar did choose to tackle one mental disorder, and in my opinion they did it pretty well.

Inside Out is centered around the idea that people operate on five main emotions — Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear — that work together in the “headquarters” of their person to make sure they stay content and functioning.  In the beginning of the movie, Joy is clearly Riley’s primary emotion.  Despite being downcast about having to move to a new state, leaving all her friends back in Minnesota, she manages to maintain an honestly upbeat outlook on things, and her parents thank her for remaining their “happy girl.”  A little ways into the film, however, Riley loses access to two of her emotions: Joy and Sadness, leaving her with only Anger, Disgust, and Fear.

My hope for the movie was that Joy would go missing, and we would then see what happened to Riley as she tried to go on without one of her vital emotions, but having her lose Sadness, too, was an even better move.  Although depression takes on different forms for different people, I think it’s safe to say that for most, depression isn’t actually being depressed in the sense of being sad.  Quite often, depression is having to force emotions that you don’t actually feel (which are usually the ones that make sense in whatever situation you’re in), and having to try to control the emotions you feel too much (the ones that don’t make sense).

This is exactly the nonsensical, frustrated behavior Riley exhibits when she tries to talk to her parents with only Anger, Fear, and Disgust at hand.  Her attention isn’t focused; she hardly looks at her parents as she snaps back irritable responses without understanding why she’s doing it (“What was that? I though you said we were going to act casual!” Fear narrates).

In the following scene, Riley’s father comes up to her room and tries to raise her spirits with a joke the two used to enjoy.  Riley merely stares at him, unable to find it funny.

We watch her judgment cloud, her relationships with her friends and family crumble, and her interests fade away.  We watch her shut down (displayed literally as Anger, Fear, and Disgust grasp hopelessly at a control panel that won’t respond to any of their commands as it begins to break down), and we see that no one, not even Riley herself, can help because the problem was caused by an imbalance in Riley’s mind that she has no control over.  She literally cannot change her outlook on things, because her brain has not given her the proper tools to.

Although it was a heartbreaking moment, it felt absolutely amazing to finally see that happen in a movie — especially a kids’ movie.  Far too many children go without help simply because they don’t understand what’s happening to them and don’t see why they need to ask for help, or because their parents don’t want to label them and end up mistaking a serious disorder for “just a part of growing up.”  I hope Inside Out will help children understand what they’re going through and how to explain it to others, and that it will help friends and family understand how to help (and why “think positive!” does far more harm than good in some situations).

I believe Inside Out will also be a help to children without disorders.  For the majority of the movie, we watch Joy shoving Sadness aside, trying to keep her out of Riley’s life entirely, and we see the disaster that ensues because of it.  In real life, we’re often told to “cheer up” or to “look on the bright side” because “life is good,” even if it’s a perfectly reasonable moment to not feel happy.

It’s never a good feeling to try and stuff an emotion away and tell yourself you’re feeling a different one, and at the end of this movie, the very obvious message is that having a plethora of emotions is okay.  It’s okay to feel.  Riley’s memories (represented as little orbs that glow the color of the emotion that accompanied them) — which were previously policed by Joy, who made sure all the other emotions kept well away from them — turn from all-yellow to a beautiful mix of colors as her emotions finally learn to work together.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to convince myself that I had a good day, when I really didn’t feel so good at the time.  Then, one day, I remember writing in my journal, “parts of the day were good, and parts of the day weren’t, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”  It may seem like a simple thought, but it was the most liberating feeling in the world to finally accept it and stop trying to make everything all good all the time.

Inside Out may not have touched on many (still highly misunderstood) disorders — and it may not have been its intention to feature any — but in my opinion, what it did, it did well.

…Oh, and one more thing.  Everyone’s emotions were personified as either all female or all male, except for Riley’s, which were a mix of both.  Could we, perhaps, have our first non-binary Pixar character?