A Cartoon Gateway to Real-World Issues

Animated movies like Zootopia and Finding Dory gave adults the tools to talk about serious issues with children in 2016.

A frame from Disney's "Zootopia" is superimposed on a projector screen in a classroom.
wavebreakmedia / Skylines / Porfang / Shutterstock / Disney / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

This is the fourth installment in our series examining the intersections of education and entertainment in 2016. Read previous entries on a documentary, late-night comedy, and a play, and check back for a final piece on television.

The tortoise taught children slow and steady wins the race. The wolf in sheep’s clothing taught them appearances can be deceiving. And now a motivated, animated rabbit is there to teach children racial profiling, sexism, and a fraught relationship with police undermine both personal and societal progress.

It’s quite the triple threat of modern-day morality from Disney’s animated fable, Zootopia.

Along with Pixar’s Finding Dory, Zootopia stands out among this year’s animated offerings with its fearless approach to teaching children about social issues. As Christopher Orr wrote for The Atlantic in March and as many others have pointed out, the film addresses racism in a particularly calculated and effective way. As the movie plunges into contemporary topics, it refrains from dumbing down the problems adults are grappling with and instead offers children a valuable and layered frame for entering these conversations with their parents, teachers, and neighbors. Through Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit who follows her dream to become a police officer rather than enter the family business (carrot farming, naturally), viewers enter a beautiful, colorful world that, at seemingly every turn, tells Judy to turn back. She can’t become a police officer because she’s too small, because she’s a woman, because she’s from a farm and is too slow and innocent to make it in the big, bad city.

Judy’s remarkable sticktoitiveness triumphs as she overcomes the expectations others have of her based on her gender and upbringing. She thinks creatively to complete a menial parking-ticket task more efficiently, she strives for bigger and more challenging projects, and she doesn’t back down when her boss issues her a near-impossible case to crack as an ultimatum for keeping her job. In a nod to a favorite buzzword of today’s education set, Judy’s grit is overwhelmingly her most defining characteristic—even if the devotion to the quality itself is perhaps misguided.

However, despite Judy’s inspirational aspects, the movie also brilliantly refrains from painting her as a universal hero. She is a character with huge moral faults of her own as she grapples with her preconceived notions of other species. When Judy eventually takes on the fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) as a Neal Caffrey-esque criminal-turned-partner, her internal struggle to decide if he’s trustworthy is based in stereotypes of slyness. And, as the movie progresses, she clearly “others” her friend as being different from “them”—the foxes who are monstrous predators. This othering language rings out in contemporary understandings of racial dynamics, and, though children are unlikely to understand all of the nuance, it guides them to think about why such behavior is problematic.

In addition to the broader ways Zootopia prompts young viewers to condemn racism and stereotyping, subtle, don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-them moments also prove bitingly relevant in 2016. Judy calls Nick “articulate;” a character is scolded because “you can’t just touch a sheep’s wool;” and Judy feels demeaned when someone calls her “cute” just because she’s a rabbit. In this way, the movie progresses from a common refrain children may have heard before about not judging a book by its cover and reminds adults of more tangible, memorable nuggets of truth.

Finding Dory was similarly effective with its inspirational messages of self-confidence and celebrating differences, even if the movie was less on-the-nose with its critique of present-day problems. Christopher Orr wrote for The Atlantic in June that Finding Dory was a nice sequel, though it lacks the spark of creativity that made many of Pixar’s earlier projects so memorable. From an educational perspective, Finding Dory is a useful gateway for ubiquitous adages of embracing others despite their ostensible shortcomings (Nemo’s injured fin, Hank the octopus’s missing arm, and Destiny the whale shark’s poor eyesight, for example).

The movie is also an accessible example of a character overcoming an intellectual disability, as Dory’s (Ellen DeGeneres) short-term memory loss is the driving impetus of the film’s entire plot. The blue tang fish launches into a complete frenzy when she is suddenly able to recall bits and pieces of her parents and former home. And the movie fluctuates between Dory’s heartbreaking frustration and self-doubt because of her disability and other characters’ celebration of her unique way of thinking. The overarching messages of acceptance, bravery, and intellectual flexibility are unmissable in Finding Dory, and because of this bluntness, this iteration of the animated fable is accessible for younger children, too.

This year, big-budget cartoons addressed prominent contemporary issues of discrimination and the marginalization of the intellectually disabled with finesse and—as can be expected from a Disney project—visual excellence. And though these movies were obviously made with children in mind, they also included subversive language to entertain adults and provided them with age-appropriate examples with which to start critically important conversations.