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Disney sharpens its claws with Zootopia

In Judy Hopps, Disney has created an action heroine that could well rival plucky Anna in Frozen

On one level, Zootopia is a just a cartoon about a young rabbit, Judy Hopps, who has to overcome "dumb bunny" stereotypes to be taken seriously as a rookie police officer.

But the animated feature also uses this storyline to decry racism, sexism, bullying and political fear-mongering in a way that will resonate with both children and adults, say the cast and film- makers.

Ginnifer Goodwin, who provides the voice of Judy, says that taking on these heavy themes was a "really ballsy move for Disney", the animation studio behind the film.

Speaking to reporters in Orlando, Florida, the 37-year-old believes that Judy's strength makes her a feminist heroine.

"I was so blown away by the fact that they created an action heroine in the form of a butt-kicking rabbit who's also kind and girly and generous and good and uncompromising.

 

I don't know what that says about the state of Hollywood, that the best female character I've played is in an animated feature by Disney. I would kill for more roles like this.

ACTRESS GINNIFER GOODWIN on young rabbit Judy Hopps, a rookie police officer she voices in Zootopia

  • Disney, known for its early classics such as 101 Dalmatians (1961), is back on form after box-office bombs in the 1990s and 2000s.

"And to have an action hero be all of those things and to also have what we typically consider masculine qualities, I found it to be really refreshing," says the actress, who plays Snow White in the television series Once Upon A Time (2011 to present).

Whereas Disney's hit musical Frozen (2013) sparked debate over whether its plucky princess is truly a feminist-friendly figure as many claim, Zootopia sidesteps this by using multiple overlapping metaphors to reference different kinds of discrimination.

Byron Howard, one of the film's directors, says Judy was modelled after real-life female police officers the film-makers interviewed, but that the character holds up a mirror to bullying and racial prejudice as well.

"We talked to one female cop who came up through the ranks in California in the 1980s, when all the other cops were big male dudes who did not want a female partner because they thought they couldn't count on her to protect them in the field.

"The female cops had that desire to be looked at as capable and equal and a lot of that went into the DNA of Judy."

Still, he adds that they made a point of having other female cops in Judy's precinct, "but they're big animals and she's at a disadvantage because of her size and what people think bunnies can and can't do".

"We were trying to mix it up throughout the movie so it wasn't easy to put different species in pockets as far as being an analogue to our world. We tried to be as animal-specific as possible and not make it a direct analogy to human conflict," Howard says.

Still, the movie does try to put forward positive messages for girls and women, even though the characters are animals. For example, the animators obliged when Colombian pop star Shakira - who is the voice of Gazelle, a popular singer in Zootopia - asked them to make her character curvier so she would be more like herself, figure-wise.

The 39-year-old singer told entertainment channel ET: "They asked me what I thought it should have and I said, 'Put some meat on the bones, you know? Poor girl, she needs some hips'.

"And they took my suggestion and they made her curvier."

Judy, on the other hand, may be the strongest female character Goodwin has played.

"I don't know what that says about the state of Hollywood, that the best female character I've played is in an animated feature by Disney. I would kill for more roles like this," she says.

Goodwin and her co-star Jason Bateman, who voices the fox character Nick Wilde, say the movie's portrayal of how politicians exploit prejudice is especially relevant in the United States now, given the issues being raised in the run-up to the presidential election this year.

For Bateman, this and the other forms of discrimination referenced provide opportunities for parents to discuss such matters with their children.

Goodwin, who has a one-year-old son with actor-husband Josh Dallas, 37, says: "I wish my kid was old enough to see it and discuss it at the dinner table."

Even without parents stepping in to explain, Howard thinks the movie's lessons will not be lost on younger viewers.

"Kids are so smart and intuitive, they're much more savvy than people give them credit for. And I think they will get it because it's told through the characters, and kids really identify with Judy because most kids want to make a difference and be a good person," he says.

Having relatable storylines is more important to film-makers than beating the audience over the head with any satire or grand metaphors, he adds.

"A lot of us grew up the way we did because of characters in films that we identified with. That's why we're so proud of the fact that I don't think this feels like a message movie. We're showing growth in characters emotionally and that helps tell a good story and helps people identify with them."


• Zootopia is in Singapore cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2016, with the headline 'Cartoon rabbit cop takes on sexism and racism'. Print Edition | Subscribe