Critic's Notebook: Why 'Zootopia' Is an Accidental Anti-Trump Allegory

Courtesy of Disney

With its story of a furry populace succumbing to its darkest impulses, Disney's 'Zootopia' — for all its animated cuteness — serves as an accidental but sharp anti-Trump allegory.

Back in 2013, when Walt Disney Animation Studios was developing a feature about a society of anthropomorphic animals who learn to overcome their baser instincts and live together in relative harmony, the creative talents behind the film certainly couldn’t have envisioned the wildly unpredictable, three-ring free-for-all that would be the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.

But Zootopia turned out to be timelier than anticipated. 

While the film, directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, effectively couches its intended message of diversity and tolerance within a menagerie of entertaining characters and vibrant, candy-colored backdrops, there are startling subtexts that eerily echo Donald Trump’s campaign of fear-mongering.

Things start off benignly enough: When we first meet Judy Hopps (beautifully voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), she’s an idealistic young bunny from the sticks determined to become Zootopia’s first rabbit police recruit. She believes deeply that breed and size shouldn’t matter in an all-embracing metropolis with the motto, “In Zootopia, anyone can be anything.” Her perseverance pays off and she’s dispatched to Precinct 1, Zootopia’s biggest and toughest, where she’s raring to nab her first perp.

The force’s dubious, imposing cape buffalo police chief (Idris Elba), however, determines that meter maid would be more her speed — that is, until a number of creatures go missing, and Judy eventually convinces her boss to put her on the case.

She partners up with an unlikely ally, a slick scam artist of a fox named Nick Wilde (an equally terrific Jason Bateman), and the Jared Bush-Phil Johnston screenplay cleverly utilizes the two characters to school each other on the finer points of stereotyping and bias, along the lines of “sly fox” and “dumb bunny.”

In one of the film’s more pointedly satirical exchanges, Judy gently reminds Clawhauser (Nate Torrence), the cheerfully chubby cheetah who sits at the precinct’s reception desk, that it’s totally not cool for anyone other than another bunny to call her cute.

But then things begin to take a darker, decidedly dystopian — or should we say, “dystrumpian,” turn.

Judy and Nick make the discovery that those very same Zootopians who have gone MIA have also gone savage, reverting to their predatory ancestral state. Called upon to announce her findings at a press conference, the well-meaning but over-her-head Officer Hopps trips over her awkward wording, fanning the flames of profiling and paranoia by unintentionally insinuating that "going savage" might be a dormant, indelible part of all predators’ DNA.

The media takes those words and runs with them, and before you can say, “Let’s make Zootopia great again!” the 90 percent of the population that are considered "prey" call open season on the 10 percent now all being tarred as dangerous "predators." Raging distrust and chaos ensues, effectively echoing the increasingly inflammatory tone and violent outbursts of Trump’s recent rallies. Even the can’t-we-all-just-get-along pleas from international pop star Giselle, a formerly beloved, foreign-accented gazelle (voiced by Shakira), fall on deaf, xenophobic ears.

The uncivilized, unruly animated mobs of Zootopia now look weirdly prescient as we, in the real world, see footage of altercations between Trump supporters and protesters in Chicago last week and listen to Trump's inflammatory rhetoric against Mexicans and Muslims (including his recent pronouncement that “27 percent” of Muslims are “really very militant"). 

Back in Zootopia, It turns out that Judy was inadvertently playing into the calculating hands of one of the city's more passive-aggressive denizens (who, in the interest of avoiding spoilers, shall remain nameless), who had orchestrated the anti-predator campaign in order to spread the idea of little-pawed creatures as morally superior. “Think about it,” the surprise villain attempts to persuade Judy. “Ninety percent of the population, united against a common enemy. We'll be unstoppable!”

Just before Zootopia completely devolves into a neo-fascist regime with a great big wall built around its perimeter, a happy ending still proves to be within reach (this is still Disney, after all): An antidote is found that returns the missing predators, who had been deliberately infected by an elixir derived from psychotropic plants, to their non-savage states.

Here in reality, the denouement will likely play out on the convention floor. But in the interim, this animated movie, ostensibly about an intrepid young rabbit and a world-weary fox who team up to solve a crime and learn to respect their differences, continues to anticipate/imitate life in surprising ways.

It may come from the same studio that previously brought us a cuddly inflatable health care robot and a lovable enchanted snowman, but Zootopia, with its story of a furry populace succumbing to its darkest, most destructive impulses, proves to be an unexpectedly unique breed: an accidental anti-Trump allegory wagging a remarkable, cautionary tail.