The movie ended well into the night. The audience in the theater didn't want to leave, sitting in their seats, listening to the closing song "Try Everything." This film has all the elements of successful animations in recent years: the humor of "Ice Age," the coming-of-age theme of "How to Train Your Dragon," and the heartwarming elements of "Big Hero 6." However, "Zootopia" is so different. The movie manages to evoke laughter from children while prompting contemplation from adults. In a mere two hours, it not only constructs an entire world within its narrative but also challenges the audience's ethical beliefs through a series of plot twists, entirely subverting the conventional "sugar-coated" Hollywood animation formula.
"Zootopia" is poised for significant success at the box office, thanks to its amusing animal characters. However, what's truly fascinating is the debate the movie's themes are likely to ignite and whether it will attain classic status in contemporary culture. In my view, this movie delves into at least three layers of meaning that are worth noting while watching.
As a symbol of an "ideal society," "Utopia" originated from the work of the same name by the sixteenth-century English scholar Thomas More. In that book, More created an imaginary island with a perfect social system that abolished private property and ensured equality for everyone. Under the protection of this ideal system, the island's inhabitants enjoyed total freedom. Poverty and crimes that existed in the real world had no place on this island. Just as the British public held high hopes for the political figure More, he was unexpectedly executed by his close friend, Henry VIII.
After More's death, his ideal society concept lived on, and a group of social reformers decided to create their own Utopia. British businessman Robert Owen established an experimental community in the United States. However, this communal society that abolished private property failed after two years. When examining the economic foundation of the community, its failure is not surprising. In two years, the community did not produce much of anything substantial and primarily relied on Owen's own wealth. The wealth accumulated by Owen came from his cotton spinning factories in England. Ironically, the economic basis of this community was in direct contradiction to Utopian ideals: it relied on wage labor in factories, slavery in cotton fields, and colonialism in international trade. The failure of the community was essentially predetermined from the beginning.
In the 20th century, the ideal of "Utopia" made a comeback as a response to capitalism. The Soviet Union conducted a much larger-scale social experiment at the national level, attempting to replace market economics entirely with planned economics. However, it was also during the heyday of the Soviet Union those anti-Utopian ideas gained prominence. George Orwell's "Animal Farm" used animals as allegorical figures to comment on politics. The pigs that led the revolution took power, and the Animal Farm, originally on the path toward equality, developed new hierarchies. As foretold in "Animal Farm," the Soviet Union's administration gradually became bureaucratic, and its economy became increasingly stagnant. The Soviet Union eventually dissolved.
In "Zootopia," the "Animal Utopia" is also an idealized city. All animals of different species live together, and each animal can be whatever they want to be. However, as the story unfolds, the audience will realize that the "Animal Utopia" is merely an ideal in concept, far from reality. The film explores whether "Animal Utopia" is an encouraging "Utopia" or a satirical "Anti-Utopia" right from its title.
Adult Fairy Tale
"Zootopia" does not just stay at the abstract concept of a "Utopia." From the very beginning, the film deliberately references reality. In one typical scene, a rabbit urgently goes to the Department of Mammal Vehicles to check license plates, but the employees there are slow-moving sloths. Children in the audience burst into hearty laughter at the portrayal of the slow-moving sloths on the screen, while adult viewers wear wry smiles. The cumbersome administrative procedures depicted in the movie are perhaps even slower than sloths themselves. The species conflicts in the film mirror contemporary racial tensions. In the city of Zootopia, species prejudice is rampant: rabbits are deemed unfit for police work, foxes are stereotyped as con artists, herbivores are seen as weak, and carnivores are labeled as brutal. Similarly, real-world society grapples with profound racial biases. In this sense, "Zootopia" serves as a fable reflecting the harsh realities of our world.
Fables, often referred to as "adult fairy tales," use metaphors to describe society and human nature. The classical Chinese novel "Journey to the West" is seemingly a story about gods and monsters, but at its core, it is also a fable. The Monkey King, with his independence and capability, dares to rebel against Heaven and overthrow its order, often seen as a representation of a spirit of rebellion in later generations. Pigsy, on the other hand, is not only lazy and cowardly but also lustful, symbolizing human weaknesses. The indirect metaphors in fables are like little riddles left for readers to solve, allowing them to draw their conclusions. In terms of satirizing reality, fables can engage the audience more effectively, and their humor and irony are often better received than direct criticism.
However, as a fable, "Zootopia" primarily opposes the stereotypical interpretations common in such stories. For example, lions representing rulers or foxes symbolizing cunningness. As the plot unfolds, the real character traits of the animals always deviate from the traditional stereotypes. The timid rabbit becomes brave and passionate, while the sly fox turns out to be kind and sincere. Tiny animals become gang leaders, while massive animals become young thugs. Even the film's main antagonist is full of surprises. Utilizing fables to interpret reality and countering racism through an anti-stereotypical approach represents the movie's second profound meaning.
Cultural Change in the World
In the movie's final scenes, the peaceful city of Zootopia hosts a concert. The superstar pop sensation Gazelle takes the stage and sings "Try Everything." This song perfectly aligns with the film's underlying message as conveyed by the off-screen narration: every species has its flaws, but these should not create rifts between them. To bridge the divide between species, the only way is to try hard and not give up on communication. Accompanied by the music, different animals join hands and dance below the stage. Disney's signature atmosphere of celebration returns in this night of revelry. The director chooses a cultural icon as the ultimate means to mend the rift, which may seem far-fetched but has precedents.
In the 1960s, society was divided due to issues like racial conflicts, the women's movement, and the Vietnam War. Just when people felt uncertain about the future, John Lennon, the lead singer of The Beatles, intervened in American mainstream culture as an advocate of peace. His song "Give Peace a Chance" was seen as an anthem for anti-war movements. Over a hundred thousand students gathered in Washington, singing in unison:
All we are saying is give peace a chance.
Lennon's song was undoubtedly a product of grassroots movements, but it, in turn, further promoted the anti-war movement, becoming a case of how soft culture can change the hard world. Lennon's cultural power was harnessed through modern media. In "Zootopia," the Gazelle character serves as the animated world's Lennon, representing the hope for animals to transcend species prejudices.
Likewise, Disney's launch of the strongly allegorical "Zootopia" is not a simple move. The current society, just like the 1960s, faces a severe crisis of division. Terrorist attacks have alienated Arab communities, economic downturns have led to backlash against immigrants, and minority groups feel anxious. In this environment, "Zootopia" with its "racial harmony" concept takes to the silver screen, much like a breath of fresh air in a polluted atmosphere. Whether "Zootopia" can become a cultural totem that changes the world is the third profound meaning I anticipate exploring in the future.