Review: 'Zootopia' portrayal of cops is refreshingly positive

Who knows? "Zootopia" may actually have a few kids walking out of the theater considering a career in LE

By Demetri Ravanos
PoliceOne Contributor

Whether intentional or not, Disney has a history of getting their animated films wrapped up in social debates. Is the mega hit “Frozen” an allegory for the struggle of gay youth? Possibly. Is “Wall-E” a warning about the dangers of global warming? Definitely. Is “The Aristocats” an indictment of trade sanctions against Cuba? Of course not, but to be fair, I just made that one up.

So how would Disney tackle the complex topic of policing in their latest animated film, “Zootopia”? After all, this is Hollywood, where even conservative voices like Adam Carolla refer to cops as “C-students that weren’t good enough to play college football.” Officers in film seemingly exist for one of two reasons. They’re either crooked henchmen that make a little extra money working on the side for an evil overlord, or they are moral, hard-working pillars of the community that get shot one day before retirement. 

Here’s the thing: while “Zootopia” does have a message about the evils of profiling and at least one bumbling cop stereotype (complete with bits of donut stuck in the folds of his chin), the film shows cops in an overwhelmingly positive light.

Real Cops, Not Stereotypes
Let’s start with the story. The movie is about Judy Hops (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a young bunny that lives in the country. She dreams of graduating from the academy and serving the thriving anthropomorphic-mammal-metropolis of Zootopia. Thanks to an affirmative action-like program, she joins the force. Instead of being asked to help with a high-profile “missing animals” case that has claimed 14 victims, she is put on parking duty.

Everything about the inner workings of the ZPD feels right. Judy finds out quickly that you don’t become a detective the second you walk out of the academy. In fact, you don’t walk into a new precinct with the immediate respect of your coworkers. The chief (a water buffalo voiced by Idris Elba) is grumpy, but his frustration is with the bureaucrats and politicians that make his job more frustrating than it needs to be, not with the job itself. There are certainly silly characters in the department (like an overweight cheetah voiced by Nate Torrence), but no one so incompetent that you can’t imagine how they function in society at all, let alone in such a high-stress profession.

After a few days of writing tickets, being confronted by civilians that can’t wait to tell her she isn’t a “real cop,” and tracking low-level conman Nick Wilde (a fox voiced by Jason Bateman), Judy inserts herself into that high-profile missing animals case. She recruits Nick Wilde as her partner. Turns out, all of the missing mammals are linked together in a single conspiracy that would cause mass hysteria in Zootopia if discovered. 

Not Your Usual Hollywood Portrayal
Now, guess what we don’t see? We don’t see any corrupt cops! We don’t see any cops that are a part of the conspiracy in even a minor way or on accident. 

It’s refreshing to see a movie take the approach that police officers are human beings and not just plot devices to impede or motivate our hero. It would have been so easy for Disney to cave to media pressure and at best portray officers as unfeeling stereotypes or at worst as pure villains. Here, both the job of policing and the individuals that serve on the force are drawn with a complexity that is lost in most big Hollywood films. 

Disney has created a movie that you can enjoy with your kids and talk about with them afterwards. In addition to profiling, themes of bullying and persistence in the face of disappointment are also explored. There’s even a chance to talk to them about what life is like for a police officer. Who knows? In a time when just the word “police” can elicit a negative reaction from many members of the public, "Zootopia" may actually have a few kids walking out of the theater considering a career in law enforcement.

About the Author
Demetri Ravanos has a BA in film from the University of Alabama, is the host of '60 seconds of film' and is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association.

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