“The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust.”
The author of these widely read lines is no longer with us, but it is this message, this simple thought – of treating every person as an individual, with their own unique traits, beliefs and value systems – that Disney’s Zootopia carries within its gorgeously rendered visuals.
It is a highly simplistic film, one could argue. It wears its message on its bright sleeve for the most, with much of its subtext devoted to pop-culture. Of course, its take on ‘otherization’ prevalent at every step of the social structure is what the film is essentially about, while being woven around an old-school mystery with enough thrills to keep you hooked.
But here’s the thing: the film needed to be that simplistic, because it’s a shame that such painfully obvious messages seem to have permeated nowhere into the collective conscience of civilized society, never mind that we’re now in the 21st century.
Set in a world where the animals seem to have put aside all their past differences and decided to co-exist together, the protagonist is a female bunny named Judy, who wants to be a cop. No surprises there, because the first level of disenfranchisement and oppression is gender. The female rabbit symbolism is obvious, but also apt.
Judy fulfils her dream of being a cop, but that doesn’t mean that she isn’t going to face blatant everyday sexism. No one’s going to let her do her job without reminding her that ‘she’s cute’, while also constantly reminding her that she is a weak creature in a world that runs on brute strength.
Luckily, Judy never read the misogynistic memo. They try their best to shove it down her throat, (her parents do it too,) but Judy believes that she can be whatever she wants to be. And that’s the message she’s always passing on through the film.
On the other hand, there’s a fox named Nick. No one trusts Nick, because, no one trusts foxes. You see, a fox can only be one thing – untrustworthy. It’s what the world is conditioned to believe, never once giving any fox an opportunity to prove itself to be otherwise. And so, Nick, the fox who once dreamt of his place in the stars, becomes a hustler. Society never gave him a chance to be anything more.
While the journeys of Nick and Judy are the fulcrum of the story, there’s a larger mystery about conventional predators mysteriously turning savage, which the duo must solve. The predators turn savage as the result of a conspiracy aimed at maligning the name of all predators, because the humanimals of Zootopia are, not surprisingly, quick to label. Even Nick and Judy fall out because Judy, despite her progressive views, can’t move past the labelling of predators in her head.
However, the film also mentions how the predators are now only 10 percent of the population, while 90 percent of the population are non-predators. It is here that the socio-politics of Zootopia gets muddled.
A typical system of oppression is always against the minority, so for the 90 percent to still feel threatened by a ‘reformed’ 10% perhaps indicates the self-victimization of the majority, something that we’re no stranger to. In fact, this aspect actually finds more resonance in the Indian context than outside, because the Western upper strata are perhaps more likely to play the guilt-of-privilege card rather than the victim card, whereas the ‘majority’ in India is far more in favour of portraying itself as the victim, rather than the oppressor that has to deal with the rise of the oppressed.
If the predator and non-predator analogy were to be extended to gender instead, the film is still on shaky ground because the ‘conspiracy’ to defame the predator is representative of the severe misunderstanding of the feminist message, a strongly anti-male stance that feminism in no way propagates. Thankfully, the brains behind the conspiracy does feel the strong arm of justice in the end.
Either way, in its sincere insights about societal divisiveness, the Zootopian message is that we’ve evolved to a time when we must move beyond labelling, stereotyping, ostracizing, oppressing, fearing or in any way belittling another human being because of extraneous factors like gender, religion or caste; instead, we must let every individual be themselves. And we must let them be whatever they want to be. After all, who’s to say that a bunny can’t be a cop, or that a ‘chaiwalla’ can’t be Prime Minister?
Pradeep S. Menon is a writer and filmmaker. He tweets at @pradeep_smenon