Essays · Movies

What Animated Films Are Saying About Our Political Culture

By  · Published on July 7th, 2016

Inequality, sexism, and racism at the heart of our summer in animated films.

Turn on your television and the world is filled with “us” and “them.” You could say that’s been the truth since two cavemen from opposing caves decided they didn’t like each other, but with issues currently at play, politically, from Brexit to the current fears surrounding the Muslim religion, battle lines are being drawn with people on one side or the other. So this could explain why today’s animated movies are here to talk about broaching the chasm. From Zootopia and Finding Dory to this week’s The Secret Life of Pets, animated features are talking about inclusion and tolerance butting heads with xenophobia and isolation.

Zootopia was the first to explicitly discuss the rise of racism currently entrenching the country. Police officer Judy Hops (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) faces both sexism and her own fear of others as she tries to unravel a mystery. Zootopia’s various worlds are not unlike the boroughs of New York, but a planned segregation between the preys and predators exists, both in the community itself and within its citizenry; Hops, who lives in a rural area outside of Zootopia, mark of her sheltered existence, reminds her family, and the audience, that not all predators are bad, like Jason Bateman’s fox, Nick.

In a move not unlike the one hatched by Secret Life of Pet’s Snowball (voiced by Kevin Hart), Zootopia’s evil villain schemes to turn predators back into the violent, bloodthirsty beasts they genetically are as a means of restoring the natural order of things. For the world of Zootopia, the villain, Deputy Mayor Bellweather, subscribes to the notion that all predators are evil because it is a natural, ingrained part of their DNA. It is only a matter of time before someone bad happens to the poor, cute prey in the town, right?

Rather than wait for the predators to attack, it is simply easier to incite violence as a means of uniting the prey and, proverbially, let the meek inherit the Earth. It is only through Judy and Nick’s intervention and friendship, and the exposure of the puffy-coiffed villain’s plan that the predators and prey can move towards a more inclusive Zootopia, free of prejudices.

The Secret Life of Pets walks similar territory while losing Disney’s overt examination of social conditions. Snowball, a bunny like Zootopia’s Judy Hops, wants to separate animals from humans for good as a means of finding independence. And, like Zootopia’s segregated boroughs, Snowball’s crew live in the sewers, enhancing their isolation but also keeping them conveniently out of sight, confining their plans to “in theory”only. Snowball’s clarion call, “Liberated forever, domesticated never” only seems to inspire animals that aren’t necessarily cute, cuddly pet material – pigs, crocodiles, etc. – and Snowball’s revenge against two pets who duped him sidetracks the bunny’s end game further.

Zootopia’s core argument remains with some clear changes: Snowball’s “us” is made up of outcasts, led by a charismatic and cute leader that seeks some type of destruction against the status quo akin to Bernie Sanders or Hilary Clinton. In Zootopia, a cute and cuddly leader hopes to prove the world needs “us vs. Them” as a means of undoing the status quo. Zootopia puts the agency firmly in the hands of an individual, while Secret Life of Pets uses the individual as a means of assembling a team, both subscribing to his ideology and between the pets hoping to stop him. With or without followers, both movies espouse that all it takes is one person with a soapbox to amass a group that undoes the world.

The villains both here and in Zootopia require the animals they’re dealing with to fall into deeply ingrained boxes, and the minute anyone asserts an independent thought, they are set for elimination. In Snowball’s case, his motives stem from personal tragedy, as opposed to a desire for true social change. When Snowball is picked up and embraced by a little girl at the end, he is soon domesticated and seemingly loves the idea. Where Zootopia shows unity is achievable between disparate groups, Secret Life of Pets presents a lone zealot humbled and quick to fall in love with the “right” person who will change the villain’s personal ideology.

Zootopia’s Deputy Mayor has understandable intentions as the world of Zootopia has socially constructed biases – such as Judy presumably unfit for police work because she’s a rabbit – but her own internal fears cause the Mayor to provoke violence as a means of proving a point rather than criticize the social issues around her, such as her own mistreatment by the mayor. Snowball’s crusade goes unnoticed by the human populace at large – even when they crash a bus on the Brooklyn Bridge – due to its lack of implementation and plans for success; it’s purely a means of recruiting with no proper execution. The “invasion” of animals Snowball envisions lacks vision and only proves his ineffectiveness as a leader.

Pixar’s animated feature, Finding Dory, also brings up the theme of inclusion and tolerance with an “us vs. Them” that’s harder to spot. In this case, Dory’s journey looks at disability, and how people can learn to eschew stereotypes and prejudices by simply interacting with others. It doesn’t have Zootopia’s political punch, but keeps the up the film’s theme of embracing people from all walks of life and not fearing what we don’t understand.

With the current political prospects so divided, animated features tackling the various subjects and candidates is a sly way of illustrating the pros and cons of our rhetoric. Regardless, all three animated films promote a world where fear must be destroyed, differences eliminated, and equality for all.

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Writer, critic, podcaster. You can find my work nearly everywhere. Creator and host of Citizen Dame.