Allow me to share a few thoughts about Disney’s Zootopia, yes, Zootopia. In many ways, it seems strange that I would write a review of a Disney movie, especially one that’s already over two years old. Even after writing the entire review I seconded guessed whether I should share this or not. Isn’t my time better spent on other things? However, two things brought me to this point. First, I had already watched this movie with some young people in my congregation and analyzed it from a Christian perspective together with them. Writing a full review did not take much more effort. Second, after watching this movie and seeing so clearly the message the filmmakers were sending, I felt that I could not refrain from writing something. After all, the flawed message this movie sends is one that our culture is swallowing whole.
Zootopia is undoubtedly an entertaining film. Particularly enjoyable was the comic interchange between the two main characters, Nick and Judy, and seeing it develop throughout the film. However, there is far more to this movie than entertainment. The creators of this movie are sending a message, a message about society and how it should be. You can see some of this already in the title of the movie. Zootopia is a spin on the word “utopia”, which is the perfect or ideal society. We must understand that the film makers are giving us a picture of what they think brings humans (this movie isn’t about animals at all) closer to a utopian society and, more importantly, they want us to follow their lead. Thus, Zootopia is far more about indoctrination than it is about entertainment. It is precisely so dangerous because the message they are sending is subtle, but it is at the same time so persuasive. People embrace their message without even thinking and it has disastrous consequences for our culture.
“Anybody can be whatever they want to be.” That’s the motto of Zootopia, the animal metropolis featured in Disney’s Zootopia where predator and prey live together in harmony. To be honest, Zootopia looks like a pretty sweet place to live. When go-getting bunny rabbit Judy Hopps steps on a train and rides into Zootopia for the first time, she is greeted by stunning scenery from the twelve unique ecosystems found within the city limits. Stepping off the train confirms that the stories were true: Zootopia is a bustling animal-paradise-city with nearly every mammal species living side by side as each one pursues their own dream.
Judy grew up in the small town of Bunnyburrow where rabbits settle on a career in only one field: carrot farming. Not so for Judy; she has dreams of moving to Zootopia where she can be what she wants to be, namely, Zootopia’s first bunny cop. However, after making the force, Judy’s skills are disregarded by the chief, who places her on lowly parking duty. It seems that Judy’s plans for police force greatness are doomed to fail in meter maid mediocrity. Judy’s fortunes turn when the chief of Police begrudgingly allows Judy to take the case of missing otter, Emmit Otterton, on the condition that she cracks the case within 48 hours or turn in her badge. Along the way, Judy ‘hustles’ sly fox Nick Wilde into helping her with the case. Fox and bunny must now work side by side trying to discover what happened to Emmit and the dozen other missing predators who have suddenly vanished with more going missing every day. Through twists and turns that bring Judy and Nick together into a budding friendship, they discover that Zootopia’s sheep have been shooting predators with the extract from a flower called ‘Night Howlers’. The Night Howlers turn quiet, peace-loving predators back into savage beasts who attack Zootopia’s helpless prey. By turning some predators savage, the sheep aim to turn public opinion against them all so that Zootopia’s prey can enjoy Zootopia all to themselves. In the end, Judy and Nick crack the case, the sheep end up in prison, and Nick even ends up joining the force himself.
So, what is the main message of Zootopia? We can see this message when we understand the basic set up of the movie, which is as follows: Predator and prey once lived in opposition to each other. However, now they have evolved to the point where they can live in harmony and accept each other. Different animals don’t need to “cower in a herd anymore”. This new reality might seem strange to some but that’s just because they are so used to the old way of living. This new animal society is a beautiful thing once you accept it. If predators want to live in harmony with prey, then the prey should accept that and not live in fear of them or continue to view them as “savage”. After all, the predators just want to live in peace and want other people to accept them. This emphasized also by the recurring statement throughout the movie, “In Zootopia, anyone can be anything they want to be.” This is the grand vision of Zootopia.
In the movie there are essentially three different groups of characters. They are divided according to how they relate to Zootopia’s grand vision. They also represent different people in society and how they relate to the film maker’s ideas of how society should be.
The first group of characters consists of those who haven’t quite bought into Zootopia’s vision or are disillusioned by it. This group of characters includes Judy’s parents, the chief of Police, and Nick the fox. Judy’s parents are apprehensive of Zootopia because it is a lot bigger than their little world. They are used to the traditional life and want to stay inside their comfort zone. Zootopia goes way beyond that and so it cannot be trusted completely. The Chief of Police is someone who might like Zootopia’s vision in theory but thinks it’s simply unattainable. He’s seen so much crime and fighting that he has just accepted the way the world is and doesn’t expect things to change. You can hear this sentiment when he simply tells Judy, “The world is a broken place, that’s why we need good cops like you.” Nick is someone who is completely disillusioned by Zootopia’s vision. He once dreamed of being who he wanted to be (a junior ranger scout) but the hatred, ostracism, and labelling he received from the group made him think that he could only be a sly fox. If that’s the way it was, why bother try do anything else? No one would accept something else anyways. You might as well go along with how people label you and act that way. You can make a decent living so why not do it? Forget Zootopia and just look after yourself!
The second group consists of those who oppose Zootopia’s vision. There are some within this group who do this inadvertently. They think that perhaps the predators are turning savage because it’s just part of their DNA. Zootopia’s vision might not be attainable, or only in part, because some animals (people) are biologically incapable of fitting into this perfect society that we are trying to set up.
Others within this group blatantly fight against Zootopia’s vision. This includes the Elephants in the ice cream parlour. After all, “THEY RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE!” This group also includes the heartless junior ranger scouts who beat up Nick and muzzled him. Nick wanted to join them when he was eight years old even if he was going to be the only predator in the group. But their message to Nick was, “You think we would trust a fox without a muzzle? Never trust a fox!!” And they kick him out of the group. Nick ends up crying in a dark corner outside the building.
Then, of course, there are the sheep. They are the ultimate enemies of Zootopia’s vision. They simply hate the predators. The sheep fear that the predators will take over and ruin the sheep’s personal vision of what Zootopia should be: a place for prey only where they stay in power. They try to rid Zootopia of predators by turning them “savage”. This way, they can create fear in the hearts of people towards predators and unite everyone else around a common enemy. Eventually it will only be their homogenous group in the city.
The third group of characters consists of those who love Zootopia’s vision and seek to promote it. One example is the pop star Gazelle. She celebrates Zootopia’s vision by having tigers dancing on stage at her concerts. When the peace between predator and prey breaks down after Judy’s disastrous press conference, Gazelle organizes a predator peace rally with predators holding signs labelled ‘Pred Pride’ and “Zootopia is for everyone”. In the interview at her predator peace rally she says, “Zootopia is a unique place. It’s a crazy beautiful diverse city (hear diversity) where we celebrate our differences…It’s irresponsible to label all predators as savage…We cannot let fear divide us. Please give me back the Zootopia I love.”
The main example of someone who embraces Zootopia’s vision is of course Judy. She moves to Zootopia because its vision gives her the opportunity to be what she wants to be: Zootopia’s first female rabbit police officer. People don’t think she can do it or try to persuade her otherwise, but she perseveres because she wants to make the world a better place. Judy does stumble at one point where she unwittingly sows seeds of fear in people’s hearts at her first press conference. When she does that she realizes that she acted in a way that pulled the city apart and created hatred and disunity. She nearly gives up, but when she sees that even her parents have come around to her vision (Judy’s mom says she “opened up their minds”), she realizes that she can make a difference if she perseveres. In the end, even Nick the fox softens his indifferent attitude towards life and becomes a police officer through her efforts to make a difference. All she did was listen to him, understand him, and believe in him. At the end of the movie, Judy gives a speech where she emphasizes that we simply need to understand each other in order to live in harmony. We must all try as hard as we can to make the world a better place by looking inside ourselves and recognizing that change begins with us as individuals.
Having seen all this, here is Zootopia’s message for us as a society. There are some people in society who were once viewed as ‘savage’ (I will let you decide who in society might once have been labeled as savage). However, we have moved past that viewpoint in our enlightened world. We must get past old ideas of how people must live. We should live in a society where anyone can be whatever they want to be. This is the foundation for a harmonious society. We should simply accept people no matter what lifestyle they live and just embrace diversity. All inclusion is good; exclusion is bad. We can live in peace with everyone. We can work towards utopia by accepting everyone and celebrating every lifestyle. Let’s all be a Judy and buy into this vision. All we need to do is look inside ourselves and do it.
The real enemies of society are those who don’t embrace this vision. These people are either close minded, they are too comfortable in their old way of life, or they are simply afraid of ‘the other’. The reason some people oppose certain lifestyles is because seeing others fail make themselves look better or it furthers their own cause. They try to label other people as “savage” so that other people won’t accept them and then they themselves can stay in power.
Analysis from a Christian perspective
In some ways, it’s hard not to buy into their vision for society when you watch the movie. When Nick is ostracized by the Junior Ranger Scouts simply because he’s a fox you almost want to swallow their message whole. When the pig at Gazelle’s predator peace rally ignorantly yells at the leopard, “Go back to the jungle, predator!”, and she calmly replies, “I’m from the savannah,” you almost want to stand by her side while holding a ‘Pred Pride’ sign. With all these scenes, Zootopia’s vision for society seems impossible to reject. Anything else seems unloving and even hateful.
Now, I will admit that the film makers got some things right. No one should ever be labelled as ‘savage’ in society. Furthermore, the fear of ‘the other’ should not control us or guide who we interact with our neighbours. It’s simply wrong to hate other people. It’s also wrong to simply bring down others just so that we ourselves can ‘stay in power’. Another insightful message from the movie is that if we label people a certain way, we shouldn’t be surprised if they act that way. Nick was told he could only be a sly fox. So, he decided that if that’s how people viewed him, then that’s how he would act. That’s a useful thing to keep in mind. People often act according to the identity we give them.
However, at this point we must ask if their vision for society will work. Should we buy in? What would happen if we do? In many ways it looks like their vision is a good one. However, it must be stressed that in the end it simply will not work. The society they are advocating is doomed to fail. Its foundation is self-contradictory. “Anyone can be whatever they want to be” is Zootopia’s creed. Make no mistake about it, that’s the agenda that many people and governments are pushing today. But this creed simply does not work. If it is really a creed to live by, why do we have police officers?! The very existence of a police force undercuts any notion that anyone can be whatever they want to be. That’s the very idea they are working against. That’s the very thing Judy was working against by wanting to become a police officer. Look what happens to Zootopia’s sheep. They emphatically can’t be whoever they want to be (and for the record, I think that’s a good thing). But, if Zootopia’s vision were true then the sheep should be allowed to turn predators savage because that’s who they want to be! But the movie teaches that they can’t. This shows that Zootopia is built on a lie. It’s very foundation does not work. It preaches inclusion but it’s not truly inclusive. Even in Zootopia they must exclude some people. That’s true of today too. If we truly build our society on the idea that anyone can be anything then that must include any activity that people want to engage in. We can then fire all our police officers and judges and close every prison. I think you can see that this vision for society is simply impossible and undesirable.
The idea that anyone can be whatever they want to be won’t work because of the fallenness and brokenness of our hearts. Zootopia’s vision doesn’t work in the movie because of the sheep’s desire. It won’t work in real life either because of the desires of our own heart. What does the Lord Jesus Christ reveal about our hearts? He says in Mark 7:21,22, “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” Every single human has desires like these. It is these desires of the human heart that make utopia impossible for us to attain. These desires do not create harmony but disunity and turmoil and ultimately death. When you understand the evil desires that live within human hearts, it’s downright scary to preach the message that anyone can be anything. Anyone can be whatever they want to be? No thanks!
The problems with Zootopia’s message do not end there. The way the movie tries to frame things is that either you affirm and embrace the way someone else wants live, or you are bigot who is ruining our vision of a perfect society. If you don’t embrace someone else’s lifestyle, you are simply stuck in your old outdated way of thinking, you fear and hate ‘the other’, or you want to stay in power. This is the reason why Zootopia’s message is so dangerous. It is framed in such a way that if you disagree with their vision and don’t let others be whatever they want to be you are essentially as cruel as those junior ranger scouts who bullied Nick the Fox. You are as hateful as the sheep in the movie who wanted to make people view ‘the other’ as ‘savage’ even though they want to live in harmony with others. Here are the ramifications in real life: if people in our society start to view you as one of those sheep, then look out! You are in the way of their vision of utopia, you will be viewed as a hater, and you will be silenced, removed, punished, or possibly worse.
What this view of society misses out on is that there is a third way of dealing with your neighbor. The film makers give a false dichotomy between embracing and affirming every lifestyle and complete ostracization and hatred. People in our world today often make this false dichotomy too. However, the Christian message is different. As Christians we must never ever view anyone as ‘savage’; we instead view everyone as created in the image of God. This is the glorious message we have for everyone. Being made in the image of God is the furthest thing away from being a ‘savage’ and it gives everyone true dignity. If everyone is created in the image of God then I am bound to show love to them. However, at the same time this means by definition that I cannot and will not embrace every lifestyle. It must be stressed that when Christians say that people cannot be whatever they want to be, it’s not because we hate them or are afraid of them, and it’s not because we want to simply be ‘in control’. The simple fact is that if we move away from acting in line with the image of God as we were created to do then we will destroy ourselves. This is why the Christian worldview can promote a true love for our neighbor and at the same time prevent people who, like the sheep, want to shoot other people. The Zootopian worldview simply cannot do this.
Actually, I find it highly significant that Zootopia was released in theaters in March of 2016. Only three months later at the Pulse nightclub, which is a gay nightclub in Orlando Florida, Omar Mateen opened fire on the helpless people there, many of whom were homosexual. He killed 49 people and wounded 53 others. This is a despicably evil act and has no place in our society, plain and simple. However, what I want us to see is that this is the very event that Zootopia aimed to prevent but could not. I would argue that Zootopia’s message is the very thing that allows for and even promotes these types of barbaric acts to occur. If you don’t believe me then consider the following syllogism:
Premise 1. In our society, anyone can be whatever they want to be Premise 2. Omar Mateen wants to be someone who shoots people in a gay nightclub Conclusion: Omar Mateen can be someone in our society who shoots people in a gay nightclub
The Zootopian Perspective preaches love, but it cannot properly say that these atrocities are wrong. The Christian worldview, however, is able to do that.
At the end of the movie, Judy admits that real life is more complicated than her idealistic visions as a child. However, she urges people to “look inside yourself and realize that change starts with you”. Again, I would encourage everyone to look inside their hearts. Look inside yourself and realize there is a whole lot of awfulness there. Remember Jesus’ words in Mark 7. Our only hope it to be changed—to be changed by God. Change starts with God as he changes us back into his image through the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. As he does change us then, yes, we must repent of things like hatred, bullying, racism, and the like. But we must also realize that God created a utopia in the beginning when he created the world and we broke that by turning away from God. We are the reason why we are not in utopia any more. That being the case, we will not move closer to utopia by affirming and embracing things that are contrary to God’s will. We move closer to utopia comes by aligning ourselves with God’s will and his created norms for things like gender identity, marriage, sexual relationships, family, and the like.
It is true that utopia will not be attainable in this life. However, in eternal life that’s what we will enjoy. And ironically, at that time everyone will be whatever they want to be. But the thing is, everyone will only want to be like God and they will only want to glorify God and obey him and praise him. Then we will truly be in utopia. As one last note, let me say this. Even though this animal city is an analogy for human society, I found it interesting that Zootopia envisions predator and prey living side by side in peace and harmony. This is an aspect of Gods’ eternal kingdom brought about ultimately through the reign of Jesus Christ. In Isaiah 11, the prophet Isaiah describes the peace brought about in the animal kingdom through the Lord Jesus Christ when it says, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together.” People in our world today are trying to create this vision apart from Christ, but it is precisely when we try to seek it apart from Christ that it is doomed to fail.
 It’s not that I am against female police officers. I just put this in there to show that this is one example of how the fil makers are constantly preaching the message of “inclusion” in society. They are painting a picture of what human society should look like and are not concerned with animals at all.
 In fact, because of this I would like to coin a new term: Zootopian Perspective. A Zootopian Perspective is an idea or way of thinking that one mistakenly believes will lead to the ideal society or a better world.