Zootopia: Meritocracy and Bunny-Rabbits


Background: This film was about Judy, a young rabbit who wanted to grow up to be a police officer, something no rabbit before her ever had. This is an animated Disney film, and it takes place in a world without humans, decades after animals became “civilized” and built towns and made progress equivalent to what humans have done now. It is an animated comedy, and it definitely follows the conventions of Disney movies with its use of zany, creative characters, a funny plot that never fails to be able to pull at your heartstrings and get you to feel real emotions, and a moral that is clearly expressed. It is a Disney movie, directed by Byron Howard, Jared Bush, and Rich Moore.

The Public Cinema Experience: I went to this movie at St. Anthony Main, as it had been a while since it had been released, and because St. Anthony’s theater is cheap already, and even cheaper with a student discount. There was a general dullness in enthusiasm at this theater for the movie. There was no buzz about being excited to see the movie before it began. Actually, it felt a little claustrophobic in its silence. I think the reason this mood was prevalent is because of the location and timing of this movie. At St. Anthony Main, the crowds aren’t usually loud, movie mobs, teens, and obnoxious people. It is a more relaxed crowd, seeing the movie after it has left the big theaters, and at the time it was playing: 8:45. It was a semi-later showing and I think that the audience reflected this.

The Space: It was at the St. Anthony Main Theater, a cute little theater that is close to the U’s campus in the very indie, hip neighborhood of St. Anthony Main. The neighborhood is always buzzing with people going to cute dinners, taking walks along the riverbank, or just biking around. It’s quaint, it’s cool, and it’s my favorite theater spot in Minneapolis.

The Economics: My ticket was $5.00, even cheaper than the normal $6.00 student ticket on other days. This is because it was $5 Tuesday, where the tickets are cheaper and the food is cheaper. Popcorn was only $2, and a drink was only $2. Altogether, I spent $9 for this experience, which is as much as I pay for just the ticket at other big movie theaters. This is one of the main reasons I go to St. Anthony. As a senior college student, I will take a discount anywhere I can get it. In fact, I will admit I even tried to stream the movie online before I saw it in the theater. I found links for it, but when I clicked them they were recordings on a camera from other countries in different languages. My roommates convinced me that it was worth it to go see it in person.

The Collective Film Watching Experience: As I had already tried to watch this film at home, I did react a lot differently to it in theater. There really is no experience like seeing a really good film live, in person, in front of a giant movie screen, with surround sound audio, and popcorn and pop. It’s the quintessential experience of movie-going, and there is a feeling that happens that transcends any possible experience of watching it at home, on a 20-inch screen. I saw this movie with my roommate, and his two friends that I didn’t know. After the movie, it was much easier to talk to those two friends after we had seen this movie together. We could joke about things because we had shared a common experience. It was a very cool bonding experience in that regard. Like I mentioned before, the audience did not seem very enthused before the movie started, but this changed during the movie. We forgot where we were, that it was later at night, and that the neighborhood was quaint and quiet and this wasn’t a big corporate theater. We got lost in the movie. The audience laughed a lot, very loudly. And one girl in the back was loudly crying during the end. We became different people, people enthused and amused and enjoying the great experience of viewing a movie together.

Analysis of the Film: This film was not very subtle about its messaged. Judy, the main character, is a bunny from the rural country who wants to move to the big city to become a police officer. No one thinks this is a good idea because bunnies aren’t city people, and she will get crushed by the workings of the big city. On top of this, she wants to be a police officer. After everyone telling her that she cannot do it, she graduates top of her class and goes to the big city to get her assignment. While all the guys around her get cases of missing people to go find, Judy gets assigned to parking duty. Eventually, Judy becomes the one to solve the biggest mystery that the city has ever been faced with. The city itself is split up into different segments, like a zoo would be. Savannah Central, Sahara square, TundraTown, Rainforest District, etc.

To me, it is clear that while there is no formal construction of humanoid race, there is a clear representation of it by the clear lines drawn between animal species. Judy, as the rural countrygirl who no one wants to work with draws the most parallels to a Black female. Her race and gender both work against her throughout the entire movie, while everyone discredits her and underestimates her. Hollinger talks about this idea:

“She points out that because the Black woman is different from the White, man in terms of race as well as gender, she represents a “double negation of the white, male self which underlies the notion of sexual and racial difference” (Young 1996: 20).” (Hollinger 199)


This sexual and racial difference is established by all of the characters who treat her with disrespect, telling her to go back to the Bunny Burrows, and giving her less important work because they don’t think she can handle it. Hollinger goes on to say:

“Young proposes that psychoanalysis is actually quite useful in analyzing how White fears of racial and sexual difference became conflated in conceptions of the “Otherness” of both Blackness and womanhood. She sees this conception of Otherness in particular in Black women’s stereotypical characterization as less civilized, less rigorously controlled sexually, and more prone to excessive expression.” (Hollinger 199)

What is interesting to me about this quote is that the Otherness of Judy is very clear throughout, but this notion of ‘less civilized’ is extremely apparent. This verbiage is reminiscent of imperialism and paternalistic notions of civilization. Judy is presented as the imperialized body, fighting against the forces of paternalistic discipline and notions of “culture.” No one thinks she can handle Zootopia because all she will ever be is a bunny. And Judy succumbs to this; after a big defeat and everyone’s anger, she moves back to the Burrows, thinking that everyone else was right. In the end, though, she comes back and saves the city.

There is a notion, though, that I see all the time in movies like this. My oppositional reading relies on my distaste of the idea of Meritocracy and ‘the human spirit.’ The moral of this movie is that anyone can make it, regardless of your identity. You just have to ‘believe in yourself.’ This erased many lived experiences and ongoing struggles of power dynamics and race boundaries in the present day. Looking all the way back to our first article, Smith writes:

“But can we reduce the film to what the director consciously intended? At times we all express the beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions of our times without necessarily being conscious of doing so.” (Smith 130)

So I am left with an open ending: an open mind to Zootopia about what was intended and what the interpretation is. There is actually a lot of really good work and discourse happening within the movie, and we cannot neglect the movie because of the ending. But I still wish there was a better, more critical approach to these issues at the end. However, after all, it is Disney.



Works Cited

Hollinger, Karen. Feminist film studies. Routledge, 2012.

Smith, Greg M. “” It’s just a movie”: a teaching essay for introductory media classes.” Cinema journal 41.1 (2001): 127-134.



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