Zootopia Deconstructs Beast Fables, Ancient and Modern
*Spoiler alert for the entire Zootopia film*
The latest Disney animated film Zootopia wowed both audiences and critics grossing $75.1 million domestically, which is the biggest opening weekend for a non-Pixar Disney animated film, and getting 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film features anthropomorphic animals (Mostly mammals.) living in a society, not unlike contemporary American society with complex gender, class, and race divisions. It follows the first bunny police officer Judy Hopps (voiced by Once Upon A Time‘s Ginnifer Goodwin) as she moves from the rural Bunny Burrows to Zootopia and investigates a missing animal case with the help of fox con man and self-proclaimed hustler Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman). Along the way, she becomes aware of the problems, corruption, and overall complicated nature of living in a diverse society. The plot of the film is a crime thriller meets mystery with a dash of comedy and satire, and there are nods and homages to great crime stories, like Breaking Bad and The Godfather along with the slapstick and pitfalls of animated films. However, throughout the film, Zootopia is a deconstruction of the classic beast fable genre, which uses animals and their often stereotypical personalities to teach a moral lesson.
Beast fables are simple and usually straightforward tales that use animals to model ethics. For example, in the “The Nun’s Priest Tale“ found in Geoffrey Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales, the fox Reynard symbolizes deception and evil while the doomed rooster protagonist Chanticleer symbolizes pride and its downfall. It’s a pithy, memorable tale with the lesson of not listening to flattery. But beneath the moral instruction and broad animal personalities, there is usually something nefarious dealing with the ideological conflicts or fears of the time period. In the 14th century, the Roman Catholic Church used the popular Reynard character to attack the English Lollard preachers, who believed that the common people should read and hear the Bible in their own language and not Latin. Later, in 1937, there was an anti-Semitic Dutch children’s story called Of Reynaert the Fox that was used as Nazi propaganda on the eve of World War II to show the lawlessness of Jewish people and socialists.
This story (and later animated film) is one of many that shows the power of children’s stories featuring talking and dressed animals to create social and racial divisions. Disney itself isn’t exempt from this with Dumbo (1940) featuring an actual character named Jim Crow, the singing Siamese cats in Lady in the Tramp (1955), and all of the Song of the South (1946), which has never been released on video or DVD, but is still featured as part of the Disney theme parks’ Splash Mountain ride. Basically, people attribute different personality qualities to animals that may have nothing to do with their actual nature, biological or otherwise, and apply them to people to demonize them and make them less than human. This happens in Zootopia, a world where predators and prey supposedly live in harmony, but Judy’s parents give her repellent and a taser specifically made for foxes before she goes off to the big city. The opening of the film shows a young Judy along with a tiger cub talking about how they have moved on from this primal state, but deeply engrained racist attitudes still persist even in a highly developed society, like Zootopia.
But, back to the fox. In many cultures, the fox symbolizes treachery. “Outfox” means to deceive someone, the German WWII general Erwin Rommel was nicknamed the “Desert Fox” because he confused Allied forces with his maneuvers in North Africa, and in Japanese folklore, the kitsune is a symbol of mischief. However, in the 1973 Disney animated classic Robin Hood, the title hero was a fox because of Robin Hood’s guerilla tactics to evade the forces of usurper Prince John while stealing the government’s money and giving it to the poor. Robin Hood may not obey the law, but he has the good of ordinary people in mind in his actions. The multiple writers of Zootopia apply this more nuanced characterization to Nick Wilde, the film’s deuteragonist while showing the pitfalls of profiling and stereotyping people through the animal metaphor. Sure, Nick’s a skilled con man, but he only does this job because as a child, some non-predator children beat and muzzled him when he wanted to become a Zootopia Scout. He felt trapped by the stereotype, and one of the most emotional parts of the film is young Nick crying with his muzzle beside him.
The writers of Zootopia present audiences with the stereotypes of foxes being crafty and deceitful with Nick Wilde pulling a con with his partner Finnick (a fennec fox), who pretends to be his little baby as he gets ice cream from a species-ist elephant and then mass produces them as popsicles to sell to lemming bankers in one of the film’s funniest jokes. It’s a clever sequence and sets up Nick’s character as a trickster in the beast fable tradition. Then, the writers subvert it by making him Judy’s partner as they look for a missing otter and end up being drawn into a vast conspiracy featuring gangsters, the mayor, and drugs that make Zootopia’s predators feral. Judy goes from forcing Nick to help her, or she’ll turn him in for tax evasion to actually becoming friends with him. But this “color blind” utopia idea is short lived once Judy tells the press that predators have a “biological” reason to attack prey, and Nick is hurt by her discrimination. This leads to a citywide crackdown on predators from the corrupt vice mayor Bellwether (voiced by former SNL cast member Jenny Slate), who wants to rule Zootopia by uniting the 90% of non-predators in fear against the 10% predators. It’s similar to the racially charged rhetoric that is marking Donald Trump’s Republican presidential campaign, but Bellwether has a meeker exterior.
The biggest turning point in Zootopia‘s deconstruction of the beast fables comes in a sequence where a savage Nick is chasing Judy around in a natural history diorama featuring deer that is an homage to the Disney classic Bambi. Bellwether (and some of the audience by extension) thinks that Nick is actually savage, and that she can spin a story of a predator killing a hero cop and stir up even more discrimination. But it is all a clever ruse as Nick has replaced the drug in Bellwether’s gun with harmless blueberries from Judy’s parents’ farm. This scene shows the foolishness of judging someone based on their species and by extension, their skin color, sexuality, religion, or gender as Zootopia‘s writers put the stereotypes of the classic beast fables out to pasture in a beautiful musical number by Gazelle (voiced by Shakira), who is a pop star activist, and has tiger backup dancers symbolizing equality. But even though the ending is happy, there is still discrimination going on in Zootopia, and even organized crime from multiple gangs featuring wolves and polar bears that still control whole territories of the city. (Judy and Nick get a lot of help from the polar bear gang led by a shrew named Mr. Big, who is like the animal reincarnation of Vito Corleone.) Just like in our world, there is plenty of work to be done to end racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.
Zootopia subverts the familiar stereotypes of beast fables and their successors, like the Redwall books where mice are good and animals like ferrets, rats, and weasels are evil simply because they are a certain species, and uses its animal characters to show a more nuanced view of the world. People aren’t bad or have a certain personality because they are a certain ethnicity or religion. Judy might be a bunny, but she’s not dumb. Nick is a fox, but he’s not evil. Instead of being like Dumbo or previous Disney cartoons and using animals to propagate racial stereotypes, Zootopia tears them down and even uses storytelling devices like the bait and switch with the berries and drug to get viewers to examine their own prejudices. It is also an entertaining buddy mystery comedy along the way.