On Friendship and Vulnerability: The Wisdom of Disney’s ‘Zootopia’

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We can learn a number of things from Disney’s smash animated hit.

Crowning Disney’s Zootopia my favorite film of 2016 has earned me a reasonable amount of polite mockery among the film fan community. Granted, there was a high number of outstanding motion pictures released last year, but unlike the traditional Disney tropes we’ve seen in offerings like Frozen or Moana (often retooled emotional beats from their classic animation era), Zootopia was somewhat of a unique offering for audiences who paid attention. Before we proceed, let it be on the record that it won every best animated feature prize on the awards circuit, held a near-perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes and was included in the American Film Institute’s top 10 films of the year. Thus, I’d like to believe that several film experts out there also saw something more in what appeared to be another run-of-the-mill kids movie.

The first half of the film carries what is perhaps the most overused of all family film clichés: that you must listen to your heart and follow your dreams no matter what. More interestingly, the second half dives into identity politics and the importance of tolerance in lieu of fearing those who are different. The political undertone isn’t subtle as both the presumed and surprise villains happen to be politicians. As demonstrated in several countries, one can rise to power by deceitfully promoting a doctrine of racial segregation as a supposed means to keep people safe. No need to provide an example of a reality show mogul who did just that because you’re all thinking of him already.

The two story elements cited above, along with impressively detailed execution, solid voice acting and memorable jokes that land, makes Zootopia a satisfying entry into Disney’s animated slate. What fascinated me about it, however, is the special connection that sparks between its protagonists – bunny officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and con artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). The banter that goes back-and-forth between the two and the choices they make that ultimately impact each other’s self-worth is perhaps the best depiction of a true friendship we’ve had on the big screen since 1969’s Midnight Cowboy.

Friendships in movies are often portrayed as the amusing and carefree by-product of wild adventures where a common addition of complimentary strengths takes place. On-screen duos who develop unlikely bonds will often annoy each other at first, find themselves in situations of extreme danger and ultimately prove to care for one another by the time the credits roll. That’s precisely what happens with Judy and Nick in Zootopia except for one important distinction: a deeply crafted exploration of vulnerability as an essential component to a lasting friendship.

When they confront each other in their initial conversations, the emphasis remains on their need to be respected. Nick brags about his encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s inner workings and his striving popsicle business, while Judy attempts to reinforce her authority as a police officer despite her lack of seniority and her less-than-intimidating frame. The key to their relationship comes later in the film as they slowly reveal their full selves to each other.

What Nick finds endearing about Judy is how completely out of reach her goals and aspirations are considering the limitations she displays on the surface, and while being forced to collaborate with her on a case, he slowly finds himself invested in her success. Despite his cynical ways, he stands up for her in front of the police chief to protect her dignity while she’s having a moment of self-doubt and humiliation in front of her peers. “Don’t ever let them see that they get to you.” he says to her, thus establishing that it’s acceptable to show vulnerability around him.

Judy reciprocates by inviting Nick to fill out an application and become her partner, which he finds deeply moving since he suffered from being rejected as a child and had considered himself a social outcast ever since. Like plenty of cynics out there, his slick and discouraging attitude had served as a protective shield to prevent him from further being hurt and Judy’s unshakeable optimism paired with her acceptance towards him slowly worked as a healing antidote to his emotional wounds. He incrementally reacts to her kindness by letting go of his hardened defense mechanisms and reintroduce his fragile self out into the world.

Just as Nick feels ready to accept her invitation and start seeking honest fulfillment out of his life while providing their friendship with more proximity, the two have a misunderstanding that sets them apart. At that moment, Judy realizes that her progressive attitude towards equality was rather conveniently progressive (like many so-called liberals in modern society) and that she didn’t fully accept him for who he was. She inadvertently ends up hurting him and goes on to offer him a heartfelt apology.

Perhaps the greatest display of vulnerability in any social construct consists of expressing how you feel after the other party has given up since you run the risk of never finding reciprocity. Too often we may realize that within our inner circles, others will feel compelled to distance themselves when things get messy or complicated for fear of being dragged down themselves. But Nick lets his guard down and admits how much she means to him and just when Zootopia was merely serving us more familiar tropes, it suddenly delivers a reflective moment of caring that feels genuinely earned.

When we come to think of friends we naturally click with, it’s seldom their strengths or accomplishments that makes them so endearing but rather their flaws and shortcomings. We are drawn to the few who can go beyond the cheerful facade we must constantly keep on display and reassure us that we aren’t the only ones coping with life’s struggles. We become closer to them by revealing part of ourselves that could potentially be humiliating to the world, let it be our unachieved dreams, our major regrets and failures, or a general sense of uncertainty about the future that simply makes us human.

If you take it as a figurative lesson in social psychology, Zootopia is bound to stand the test of time and eventually be hailed as an animated classic. As the film cashed in over a billion dollars worldwide, the prospects of a sequel are already in the works and many fans are already “shipping” the leads. In other words, they’re wishing for a romance to emerge between the two which is a direction I hope the filmmakers will choose to avoid. Instead, they should continue to celebrate the sheer beauty of a significantly more rare and precious kind of relationship that will further be tested in order to keep growing.

If you did see Zootopia last year and didn’t think much of it, you may want to revisit it a second time. I suggest you watch it with that one friend you will always care about, and who will always care about you.