Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Zootopia and Young Voters

by Matt McKenna

658596_028Zootopia’s target audience may be a tad younger than Bernie Sanders’ target audience, but youthful Sanders supporters should nonetheless consider watching the film in order to see a dark vision of their potential future. Like many animated Disney films, Zootopia includes talking animals working together to solve a problem. Also like many animated Disney films, the audience is bludgeoned with allusions comparing the cartoon animals’ society to our own (in Zootopia, institutions are specist like real world institutions are racist). There’s nothing wrong with talking animals or ham-fisted moralizing–after all, the film is for kids. What differentiates this Disney film from previous Disney films is that a young voter–pro-Sanders or not–may well see their dreary, hopeless future in Officer Judy Hopps’ transition from plucky bunny to establishment stooge.

The hero of Zootopia is Judy Hopps who, like young voters in reality, starts out as an ardent advocate for the downtrodden. Though she is but a humble rabbit, a child to carrot farmers, Judy dreams of becoming a police officer in the big city of Zootopia, which is an interesting choice for the name of a city built by animals since (at least for me) the name conjures up images of caged creatures on display for human amusement. Anyway, young and full of hope, Hopps enrolls in the police academy, lands a job as the city’s first rabbit cop, and quickly thereafter becomes disillusioned by her role in the force. You can probably guess the challenges she faces: the chief is a jerk, the sleazy Mayor Lionheart (he’s a lion) cares about his image and not about the city’s crime wave, and the people Officer Hopps attempts to protect eventually take advantage of her naïveté. At the film’s emotional nadir, Hopps falls into a depression and heads home to farm carrots with her parents. It's the classic tale of a kid rebelling at twenty only to go mainstream at thirty. Admittedly, Hopps speeds through this transition much faster than a decade, but that shortened time period may be narratively justified by converting the film’s timeline into rabbit-years or something.

The film’s primary conflict revolves around the tensions between animals who were traditionally predators and animals who were traditionally prey. In the city of Zootopia, animals aren’t supposed kill each other, but for mysterious reasons, some predators are going “savage” and attacking prey. Clearly, this is the work of a criminal mastermind, and the case is far from being cracked until the underutilized Hopps gains a political ally in Assistant Mayor Bellwether, a seemingly sweet and helpful sheep. Bellwether empowers Hopps to work the case, much to the annoyance of the police chief who planned to relegate Hopps to parking ticket duty. Here, Bellwether can easily be read as a stand-in for a socially progressive political figure like Bernie Sanders in that both politicians make it appear as if the impediment to social progress is not a broken system but rather the leader at the top of government. For Bellwether, Mayor Lionheart must be replaced in order to solve crime in the city, and for Sanders, establishment Republicans and Democrats must be replaced in order to make social progress in America.

Spoiler alert: the film’s main twist occurs when we find out that Bellwether framed Mayor Lionheart for the crime of drugging predators into going savage, and as the new mayor she intends to use her power to disenfranchise predators. Unfortunately for her, Officer Hopps figures it all out, arrests Bellwether, and rescues the drugged predators–case closed. You may therefore be tempted to think that the film has happy ending.

Indeed, by the conclusion of the film, the police chief respects Hopps, the bad mayors have been ousted, and the fox that initially scammed Hopps decides to join ZPD as the city’s first fox cop. I’m sure the children in the audience were relieved by this turn of events. But if we look more carefully, we’ll see that the situation in Zootopia is actually much worse than it was at the beginning of the film. While there isn’t a corrupt mayor in office anymore, it isn’t clear who the mayor is at all! Will there be special elections? What Zootopia shows it that it doesn’t matter who the figurehead is on top of a corrupt system, the corrupt system is still corrupt. Next, Hopps gives a commencement speech at the police academy graduation, indicating that she too has joined the powerful establishment. She is no longer the plucky upstart attempting to change the system–she has become part of the system. And finally, in a gaudy act of nepotism, Hopps snags a police position (probably with a pension!) for her tax-evading buddy, Nick the fox. In Zootopia 2, I expect Hopps to complete her transition into villain, which will be a useful narrative turn for the film’s young audience so they will understand that the only thing your heroes can promise is that they will disappoint you.

Bernie Sanders won’t win the primary and therefore won’t win the election. For Bernie fans who wish to keep their good impression of the man, this fact is a blessing since they’ll never have to witness him morph from firebrand progressive into a mere cog in the political machine. For comparison, it took fewer than eight years for Barack Obama to transition from anti-war candidate to President running a drone war overseas. Whether you’re in America or in Zootopia, it seems, the individual at the top of government can’t actually change the system even if they wanted to, which they don’t.