Beware, some animal-friendly spoilers live below.
Discussing his plan to defeat the self-described Islamic State, Trump said, “We are playing by rules, but they have no rules. It’s very hard to win when that’s the case.”
To that, host John Dickerson responded, “Isn’t that what separates us from the savages?”
“No, we have to beat the savages,” Trump replied.
Two days earlier, Disney released its own animated movie about “savages.” The film, “Zootopia,” followed a bunny named Judy Hopps while she tried to establish a career as a police officer in an animal-run metropolis, where predators and prey co-exist peacefully, if awkwardly at times.
At its core, however, “Zootopia” was something else: a political condemnation of the very forces that Trump was exploiting at that moment to take over the Republican party.
In the film, prey, which constitute the vast majority of the city’s population, come to fear the dangers of predators, who are, for unknown reasons, “going savage” or returning to their prior tendency to attack those around them.
Fear sends the city into a panic, causing distrust between animals who have long lived together. Some protest against the rapidly growing fear of predators ― “It is irresponsible to label all predators as savages. We cannot let fear divide us,” says the Shakira-inspired pop star Gazelle ― but even Judy’s own prejudices eventually become clear to her friend Nick Wilde, a fox who experienced anti-predator discrimination throughout his life.
Ultimately, the reason so many predators are going savage becomes apparent: Dawn Bellwether, an innocent-looking sheep-turned-city mayor, has been injecting a serum made out of the flowers “Night howlers” into predators to transform them into dangerous creatures. Near the end of the movie, when Dawn discovers Judy knows of her plot, she tries to convince her that Judy, too, could benefit.
“Think of it,” she says. “Ninety percent of the population, united against a common enemy. We’ll be unstoppable.”
Dawn explains how she has exploited fear to her political advantage.
When Judy stands with Nick despite Dawn’s plea, a police officer pushes the two of them into a hole. Standing above them, Dawn shoots Nick with the dangerous serum, hoping he goes savage and kills Judy.
“Gosh, think of the headline: ‘Hero cop killed by savage fox!’” Dawn says.
“So that’s it. Prey fears predator and you stay in power?” Judy asks.
“Yeah. Pretty much,” Dawn replies.
“It won’t work!,” Judy insists.
“Fear always works,” Dawn says.
The decision to make a movie about how people’s prejudices, when mixed with fear, can be exploited for political gain was made well before President Trump’s xenophobic rise to power, directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore have said. But whether it was luck or not, the film’s release last year could not have been timed better.
“Zootopia” ended the year as the most positively reviewed movie released in 2016, according to an adjusted score calculated by the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. At the box office, it became the year’s seventh-highest grossing domestic film, pulling in $341 million. Worldwide, it earned more than $1 billion, making it one of the most-watched animated films of all time.
At a time when American adults’ movie-viewing habits are becoming increasingly segmented, those of their children have not. Expensive animated kids films like “Zootopia,” so carefully crafted and optimized by their creators, are released less frequently, but have shown a more consistent ability to capture their audiences. In the last two years alone, six animated children’s films ― “Zootopia,” “Finding Dory,” “The Secret Life of Pets,” “Sing,” “Inside Out” and “Minions” ― have been among the top 10 domestic box-office performers.
These films can be discounted at the Oscars ― siloed into their own categories ― but their influence should not be. Children, generally speaking, watch the same movies as one another much more than their parents do, and the power of these films to shape children’s world views is vast. Those two factors together make them arguably more influential than even the most affecting of adult films.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has said that children “learn by observing [media], imitating [it], and making behaviors their own.” Seeta Pai, vice president of research at Common Sense Media, which reviews children’s media, has said that while the ability to “articulate a [movie’s] moral theme” develops “fairly slowly,” children are generally able to do so by the age of nine or 10.
This gives movies like “Zootopia” a tremendous ability to help shape the views of a generation, a responsibility that isn’t lost on the film’s creators. “These movies, especially for young people, they are fairy tales that have the purpose of preparing young people for the world ahead of them,” director Rich Moore recently told Business Insider.
Moore knows how closely the film mirrors the country’s current political reality ― “The real move towards governing by fear ... is what our entire third act is about,” he said in an interview with Variety ― but he’s also not so naive to believe “Zootopia” could change the opinions of the voters who saw it.
Kids, however, might be another story. Moore and Byron talked excitedly to Variety about an experience they had earlier this year at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, where thousands of fifth- and sixth-graders talked through the film’s lessons with one another while doing craft projects about it.
Then, earlier this month, Barry Jenkins, director of the Best Picture nominee “Moonlight,” told them at the BAFTAs that children at his house were recently discussing the state of the world, “using ‘Zootopia’ as a prism.” The film was doing what Moore and Byron had hoped.
Certainly, it would be faulty to argue that one movie alone could pull a child out of a world of discrimination. Such a shift takes a village, filled with parents, teachers and role models, ready to work with children from birth until adulthood.
But that also shouldn’t discount the fact that in 2016, as the future president of the United States was dividing the world between savages and everyone else for his own personal gain, a children’s film about an animal-run metropolis was doing what it could to make sure such an ascent never happens again.