The zeitgeist-grabbing “Zootopia” continues to resonate with even greater relevance nearly a year after its release — and less than a month after the divisive Trump election.
And for directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore, an early scene in an ice cream parlor best epitomizes the topical theme of racial bigotry between predator and prey. It’s the crucial first meeting between rookie bunny cop, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), and sly fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who pulls a con while pretending to order ice cream for his young son (watch the video below).
“Phil [Johnston] and Jared [Bush] wrote a great scene as a nice way of introducing the idea that roles were a little messed up with the bias, especially Judy in the way she handles it personally,” Howard told IndieWire. “That’s the first time after we learn that she was bullied as child by Gideon [the red fox] that she sees Nick and thinks he’s a sneaky guy. So she makes assumptions and unbuckles her holster and reaches for the mace fox spray. Then, immediately, it turns on her with this dad there with his little son.”
Judy then stands up to the racist owner, Jerry Jumbeaux Jr. (John DiMaggio), the African Elephant, who refuses to serve Nick and his son. “They both live down to the stereotypes of their species,” added Moore. “She tries to do a good deed for Nick and his son [demanding that the owner serve them], but then she insults Nick by telling him, for a fox, that he’s a great guy. The bias lives in her and she hasn’t really addressed it in a substantial way.”
Thus, the scene establishes two levels of discrimination — the overt kind expressed by Jumbeaux, and the more unconscious one displayed by Judy. The directors said the overt bias was initially explored more fully throughout the movie, but they tweaked it to make it seem more contemporary.
“Both are just as insidious,” Moore said. “But it’s almost better that Jerry’s putting it out there so you can see it for what it is. And, in describing the world where Nick comes from, this is what it means to be a predator in Zootopia. If you want to see a sneaky fox, I’ll give you a sneaky fox.”
But, of course, the humorous tone and animal allegory prevent the scene from becoming too serious or polemical.
However, as originally conceived, Nick was the protagonist and the viewer was in on the con with him. But even though it was very funny, the humor came at the expense of Judy, who seemed dim-witted. “It was a difficult conversation to have with the animators and with Jason and Ginny,” Moore added.
After the rewrite, though, the directors made sure that Judy came across as caring and constructive, even though she lacks awareness about Nick and her hidden bias. “Rich and I worked on this for weeks with the animators,” Howard said in reference to Judy trying to bridge the tension between predator and prey.
But, for Moore, “Zootopia” has suddenly taken on a surreal atmosphere in light of the recent Presidential election. “It’s become a more important topic since Phil and Jared wrote that scene and Disney released the movie,” he added.
“What’s going on around us in our country, this is being played out in real-time now. And having it in this form in a movie, with animation and animal characters, can bring some healing to a country that feels pretty torn up and on edge,” he continued. “But I feel like it’s weird to be talking about healing when the wound is being gashed open as we speak.”