Movies

The lions and lambs of Zootopia

John J. Thompson

Disney’s animated Zootopia was certainly in development long before the current political circus came to town. That makes its immediate cultural relevance, not to mention its surprisingly soulful eschatology, so much more impressive. It took no prodding at all for my 11-year-old son to chime out, “This is all about Trump!” While Zootopia is certainly not a “ripped from the headlines” allegory, it does grapple with some of the most troubling aspects of American society in a spirited and spiritual way. Its central (and deeply Biblical) theme could not be timelier.

The story centers on Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a perky and diminutive rabbit whose aspirations far outstrip her traditional place in society. Possessed of an innate wisdom and penchant for peacemaking, Judy dreams of becoming a police officer in the big city of Zootopia, a place where animals of all types coexist in an “evolved” state of non-predation and relative peace. As indefatigable and enlightened as Judy is, however, we soon see that, like everyone else, fear and prejudice are always lurking in the background of her mind and heart. Whether she and the rest of the inhabitants of this intricately created world can transcend such negativity in the pursuit of truth, justice and peace is the crux of the story.

Its central (and deeply Biblical) theme could not be timelier.

Shortly into her big-city adventure, Judy connects with Nick Wilde, a wily but good-hearted fox (Jason Bateman). Nick seems destined to live down to society’s expectations of him until Judy awakens his better self. The two move through several neighborhoods of Zootopia as they attempt to discover the whereabouts of a missing otter. That search leads them deeper and deeper into a noir-esque mystery that offers genuine tension and jolts, as well as warm-hearted comedy. The underlying ideas, however, are surprisingly sophisticated for young audiences. When a conniving villain admits to a nefarious conspiracy designed to drive a wedge between some animals and others, she proclaims “Fear always wins!” The plan is to frame predators (a minority in Zootopia) and demonize them, which threatens to tear apart the harmony of the community. For Zootopia to survive, individuals must conquer their own fears and the entire culture must remember the principles upon which it was built. Sound familiar?

The beautiful bit is that despite the heavy themes, Zootopia never comes off as preachy or pandering. This is one of the strongest bits of Mouse House storytelling since the first Toy Story. Every scene works, the tension is effective and the payoff is more than satisfying. In the process, kids might not even notice the “good-for-you” messages throughout. But they are likely to experience the emotions that surround issues of racism, sexism and community.

Zootopia references the longing all humans have for peace on earth — for lions, lambs, leopards and goats to lie down together. Despite the ongoing presence of sin (the need for police in Zootopia indicates that things aren’t as evolved as they may someday be), the beauty of this shining city is its inclusivity, opportunity and diversity. As is the case with any community this side of eternity, however, the citizenry must be on guard against those who would use their fears and prejudices against them. During the action-packed climax of the story, I kept hearing one Biblical instruction lingering in the background: Fear not.

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