Aside: The official music video for “Try Everything” infuriates my inner eight-year-old, who lurches in frustration each time it cuts away from the wonderful cartoon scenes to show boring old live-action people.
I have determined that at least half my enjoyment of Disney’s unexpectedly triumphant Zootopia comes from my reaction to its theme song, “Try Everything”, written and performed by Shakira (and Gazelle, her animated counterpart). While structurally a three-minute pop song pitched (like the movie that delivers it) to a child audience, I found it rich with meaning, both personal and objective. In the latter sense, it connects in an excellently subtle way to what I regard as the film’s most celebrated sub-theme.
While the song first appears as a high-energy anthem for the young protagonist-bunny Judy Hopps as she starts an unlikely career in the big city, “Try Everything” also connects with Zootopia’s surprising consciousness of race relations in a modern multi-ethnic society. The titular city earns its name through its achievement of a cross-species utopia that balances homogenous communities of individual species — ethnicities, for all intents and purposes — with vibrantly mixed cultures. While it seems to manage its inherent tensions far better than any real-world city made of a patchwork of ethnic enclaves, the film makes it clear that it doesn’t get this for free. The animal-persons of Zootopia have to work to maintain this balance, constantly. The better citizens never hesitate to course-correct whenever they drift over a racially charged communication boundary, nor do they ever regard this necessity as a social hindrance. Failures to recognize these mistakes, no matter how well intentioned, can lead to greater disaster.
In a key pair of interactions early in Zootopia, idealistic Judy gently corrects a non-bunny’s use of “cute”, delivering an obviously much-practiced mini-lecture about how the c-word means one thing among bunnies but another thing entirely when used by other species, especially towards bunnies. The other character acknowledges his error immediately, with neither great surprise nor undue embarrassment, and apologizes with good humor. Then — crucially, only a few scenes later — Judy drifts over the line herself during her first encounter with the fox Nick Wilde, calling him articulate as a compliment while she’s flying high with pride at tamping down the anti-fox speciesism her parents had instilled in her. World-wounded Nick, more interested in ending this conversation with a bumpkin cop than acting as a role model, lets it slide with a weary smile.
But: this leaves the door open for the uncorrected Judy, confident in her own direction and ignorant of her earlier mistake, to much more seriously overstep that line later in the story. She causes unintended but real harm at a greater scale which she must then work to undo. While it’s her mistake to fix, would she have fallen into it so easily had Nick called her on the earlier misstep? It becomes clear that the different animals of Zootopia have to push as much as they pull in order to live shoulder-to-shoulder with any degree of harmony.
And over all this, I hear “Try Everything” as a theme song in the most literal sense. Just as the song is a celebration of constantly making “new mistakes”, the Zootopians have effectively conquered their worst potential by agreeing that it’s okay to screw up all the time when working together, so long as everyone recognizes their mistakes and learns from them. This also puts everyone on the hook to let others know when they’ve messed up, a way of paying it forward — because the next person to get it all wrong is just as likely you yourself as anyone else.
While the Disney film’s depiction of this philosophy may seem too ideal for reality, I certainly do see its antipattern all around me: the confused feeling among people who do acknowledge their privilege, but then express confusion and discomfort that their own words have become weapons they can’t control. They feel itchy that public discourse increasingly seems like walking on eggshells, nervous that anything they say might offend some group or another for heretofore unknown reasons.
Zootopia and “Try Everything” propose an antidote, and one that speaks to me: Go ahead. Mess it up, but own it, and get better. Just practice a modicum of humility and flexibility, is all, and make it a policy to emulate a certain other talking animal of some reknown, saying what you mean and meaning what you say. If you are as decent a person as you claim, you’ll not only do fine, but you’ll grow in decency. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll see in retrospect that the roped-off areas are few and sensible — and you might even start getting better about avoiding them in the first place.