Ten years ago, if you had told me Disney would make a film whose opening scene features a school play in which a young bunny soberly explains the life-or-death nature of the jungle, I might have thought you were crazy. Even a couple of years ago, if you’d said Disney would find its own way to address the racial strife eating America from the inside out… You get the idea. Well, it’s 2016 and Disney actually did that. Zootopia is a film that not only tackles questions of race, prejudice and ‘animal’ nature in all its forms, but is Disney’s most beautifully-realized 3D-animated film yet. It’s also flat-out hilarious, so don’t worry that the film might be too heavy for kids. It’s a perfect crowdpleaser.
Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a small town rabbit with dreams of moving to Zootopia and becoming its first bunny police officer. From an early age she feels the urge to sort out right from wrong, and even though Zootopia’s siren call “Anyone Can Be Anything” is alluring, Judy is constantly reminded that she’ll never be more than she is. (“It’s great to have dreams, just as long as you don’t believe in them too much,” her father says, in the first of several heartbreakers.)
Judy’s dream begins to crumble when she lands a position in the city as a meter maid, until she convinces Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) to give her one of fourteen missing persons cases plaguing the precinct. Enlisting the help of a fox named Nick (Jason Bateman), a local hustler who cons Judy out of twenty bucks her first day on the job, Judy has two days to track down a missing otter. Traversing the city, Judy and Nick run afoul of mob boss Mr. Big (Maurice LaMarche), Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons) and Assistant Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate), not to mention the shady organization kidnapping random citizens.
From its very first words (“Fear. Treachery. Blood lust…”), the film’s dialogue is loaded with meaning, explaining to us who these characters represent, and how the film plans to go about it. Predators make up ten-percent of the population in Zootopia, a fact of which citizens like Nick are only too aware. People already distrust Nick because he’s a grifter, and the fact that he’s a fox only adds to the stigma. Or maybe he’s a grifter because he’s a fox; it’s a chicken & egg situation. You can see the analogy they’re drawing here, though. The prejudice associated between predator and prey isn’t where it ends. Early on it’s established that, predator or prey, the little guys often get the short end of the stick in Zootopia. Most of the city’s cops dwarf Judy in size. The precinct features yaks, elephants, and rhinos; mostly creatures that fit the ‘enforcer’ stereotype. In fact, one of the few predators on the force is booking officer Clawhauser (Nate Torrance), a chubby cheetah whose obsession with pop stars and iPhone apps renders him all but harmless. (The precinct considers this a good marketing angle right up until it isn’t.)
Judy finds herself in hot water when she stumbles upon the secret plot at the center of the film, which threatens to spread mass panic in Zootopia. I hesitate to say that this is where the film gets preachy, but it does toe the line a bit. Like many kids in the audience, Judy is a young, impressionable mind, and doesn’t yet understand the ramifications of singling out predators. There’s a lesson here in tolerance, as well as choosing your words extremely carefully. Of course, this is Disney we’re talking about here, so it doesn’t go anywhere that a sensible person would consider too bold. As with any good buddy cop movie, though, this twists our view of the city back in on itself, questioning who the “good cops” really are and wondering if the architects of Zootopia really had society’s best interests at heart.
Speaking of which, Zootopia’s visual design is downright fascinating. The city is divided up into distinct sectors that mirror particular ecosystems, from Sahara Square to Tundra Town, and including an adorable miniature city unto itself for the mice and gerbils of the world. The makers of Zootopia clearly took heavy inspiration from the layout of Disneyland, smashing the jungles of Adventureland right up against the Old West of Frontierland, itself adjacent to Main Street USA, etc. And capping it all off is the train system connecting and encircling the entire city. (Oddly enough, Zootopia feels like a truer vision of Tomorrowland than the one in last year’s Tomorrowland.)
More than any of Disney’s recent hits, Zootopia is absolutely a message movie, but one that plays the seriousness of that message as deft as a fiddle. While there is more to unpack here than one viewing and one review can rightly do justice, I firmly believe Zootopia will reward repeat viewings. Brace yourselves for this film to enter the weekend rotation on basic cable, because once ABC or Freeform get a hold of it, Zootopia will take over the world. And by all rights, maybe it should, because if there’s any message that today’s kids need out there right now is that change does, indeed, start with all of us.
Liked This? Share It!