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zootopia. ©2016 Disney

Why Disney’s Zootropolis might be the most important film you see this year

Disney’s latest movie, the highly-acclaimed Zootropolis (or Zootopia, depending on where you see it) is an animated movie formula with a twist – all the characters in the city, from Tundra Town to the Rainforest, are animals.

The film follows Judy Hopps, a country bunny who dreams of becoming the first rabbit officer on the Zootropolis police force. She meets the roguish but likeable fox, Nick Wilde, discovers a plot to turn the “predator” citizens savage, and then finds herself caught up in the confusion and hysteria as she tries to track down the villain.

This is a combination of buddy film, rom-com, mystery, and action flick – a furry version of Lethal Weapon.

But that’s just the surface story. As you marvel at the lifelike CGI and laugh at the sloths who run the Department of Motor Vehicles at their uniquely infuriating pace, you are being drawn into an important political film. For Zootropolis is also a vital response to the politics of fear in the US – not just the latest Trumpopolis of aggression and hatred, but the decades of suspicion and occasional panic that have preceded it, too, sentiments that have laid the foundations of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Predators and prey

Zootropolis is a mega-city where citizens live an animal American dream. All species, from the smallest to the largest, herbivore and carnivore, domesticated and formerly wild, live in harmony. It’s not a sugary-sweet melting pot – Nick Wilde the fox is still a con-man, and rabbit police officer Judy Hopps must overcome discrimination – but Zootropolis is proof of America’s ascendancy over a “natural” state of conflict and aggression.

This is far from a settled ascendancy, though. All it takes is a malicious catalyst to destroy the delicate truce between the “prey”, who make up 90% of the Zootropolis population, and the “predators”.

And right on cue a power-hungry politician turns a series of disappearances into a climate of division and fear. Workers cast worried glances at each other. A mother pulls her child closer when a lion sits down next to them on the subway. TV channels break news of the latest attacks by predator on prey and prey on predator. Soon, there are demands for all predators to be rounded up.

Sloth-paced administration is the least of this town’s problems. ©2015 Disney

This is not a direct response to the politics of Donald Trump, as Zootropolis was in production long before the businessman announced his presidential candidacy. Indeed, the film is far more effective because its message is not just for The Donald and his supporters – it is a challenge to the American public as a whole.

In one of the film’s turning points, Officer Judy Hopps, now a hero, extemporises at a press conference that predators might be acting from “biology”, as they revert to primeval instincts. Panicked reporters ask if this means savagery will break out across Zootropolis – and Judy’s friendship with Nick Wilde breaks down as she stumbles further into the politics of “us v them”.

We’re reminded that it is not just a Trump-ist politician or an evil genius who can incite conflict, splitting neighbours and partners. It doesn’t even have to be someone with bad intentions – even innocent and well-meaning citizens, citizens such as Judy Hopps, can cause serious damage by carelessly recycling the language of the “primitive”.

Of course, Zootropolis does not end there, with traumatised children and worried parents exiting the cinema. The crisis in Zootropolis passes, the furry and fanged find peace again, the villains get their just deserts. But the city cannot erase the moment. The resolution doesn’t negate the suspicion and fear. No one is immune to the whipped-up threat to community.

The American paradox

The timing of Zootropolis’ release illuminates the American paradox. The US is not just a country of social progress or of social animosity – it is both.

Last year, the Supreme Court made the historic decision to legalise same-sex marriage. An African American is president, and many others hold high office. So do Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and people from other ethnic backgrounds. A woman is running for the highest office in the land. US culture celebrates diversity of lifestyle and background within a shared American experience.

But at the same time, the country is riven with the discourse of hatred. So even as some American Muslim communities are hailed as examples of harmony by the government, politicians such as Trump still find space to blackmark all Muslims as troublesome.

Overt racism is frowned upon, but police shoot unarmed black men and income inequality maintains fear and division. Hispanic Americans are caught up in the furore over “immigrants” flooding the US because there is no wall with Mexico. Women are portrayed as hysterical hostages to their biology, or become sexualised props in the battle between politicians.

This is far from a new paradox. US progress in the 20th century was accompanied by the Red Scare. Any ordinary American was a potential communist, providing the perfect excuse to hold back civil rights and to blacklist progressives. The end of the Cold War did not bring peace, with “victory” soon dissolving into renewed race tensions, from the 1992 Los Angeles unrest to the OJ Simpson trial.

But 2016 is not just more of the same. It is precisely because of the advances in some areas that the regression in the political arena is so stark. Fed by the War on Terror and by media outlets largely based on polarising opinion rather than engaging in discussion, the language of fear and hatred surges in intensity. Donald Trump is both a symptom of and contributor to that poisonous discourse.

Zootropolis exposes this American paradox. The question, as the film reaps well-earned praise, is whether it contributes to a way out.

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