People often like to compare the current “revival” phase of Walt Disney Animation with the well-known Disney Renaissance era of the 1990s, matching recent computer animated films to their highly successful hand-drawn counterparts from 20 years ago. Bolt is paired with Oliver & Company, which both kicked off their respective phases, which makes Tangled the modern equivalent of The Little Mermaid and Frozen the partner of Beauty and the Beast. (What people do with Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6, or why The Princess and the Frog usually gets left out, I have no idea, which is why I tend to avoid that debate.) But even the most hardcore Disney fan will have trouble finding which of the previous 54 Disney animated Zootopia most resembles, for the simple reason that Disney has never made a film like Zootopia before. By combining the familiar sight of anthropomorphized animals wearing clothes, recalling everything from the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons, through Robin Hood, and even up to Chicken Little, a clever detective story, the style of a buddy cop movie, and a brilliantly realized world, Zootopia is one of Disney’s most fun and clever movies. But it’s Zootopia’s message and its deeper themes which set it apart, themes that could not be more relevant to the world we live in today.
Zootopia tells the story of Judy Hopps, a rabbit from the country, who longs to leave her carrot-farming family behind to head to the big city to be a police officer, the first bunny on the force. Despite her parents’ attempts to talk her out of her dream, and warning her of all the dangers she might face in the bustling metropolis of Zootopia, she forges ahead, winning one for all the little guys out there and earning her badge. But on her first day, surrounded by the other massive and intimidating animals who make up the ZPD, Judy is relegated to parking duty, forced to be a meter maid while her peers chase criminals and solve important cases. Nevertheless, she works hard, giving out record parking tickets and even catching a robber, and is able to convince her Chief to let her work on a big case. He only agrees on the condition that Judy promises to resign if she can’t find a missing otter within 48 hours. To solve the mystery she’ll need the help of a con artist named Nick Wilde, who hustled Judy into paying for part of his latest scheme on her very first day on the job, and who just happens to be one of rabbits’ mortal enemies: a fox.
This unlikely duo finds themselves in the middle of a missing mammals case. In addition to an otter, a host of other animals have disappeared from throughout the city, all of whom are predators of one form or another. Nick isn’t particularly eager to help Judy, and agrees to help only after she blackmails him with proof of his criminal undertakings, and while he does his best to trip up her investigation just for the fun of it he does prove invaluable, opening doors that would otherwise be closed to a new cop who is also a small bunny. The case takes the pair from the bustling urban center of Zootopia to its jungle and arctic regions, through a naturist club and into the criminal underworld. And when the missing predators are discovered to have “gone savage” and reverted to their baser instincts Judy and Nick find themselves on the path to uncovering a vast conspiracy with the power to tear apart the peaceful fabric of Zootopia for good.
Zootopia is an exquisitely crafted movie. It’s amazing how much thought was put into designing the look and feel of the film’s universe and its inhabitants. It would have been easy to put lions, sheep, wolves, polar bears, and weasels into clothes and have them move like humans, but the wide variety of animals all move and interact in ways that recall their real world counterparts. (So many of Judy’s actions and mannerisms remind me of our pet rabbit, Smokey, that my wife and I could not stop giggling.) The city itself is an intricate marvel where animals small enough to run through hamster-sized tubes work alongside elephants, and as such everything from cars to housing to food is designed to serve a wide variety of species. The script makes full use of this rich playground, allowing Judy to chase a robber through a miniature portion of the city as if they’re monsters from a Godzilla movie. There’s always something interesting to look at onscreen, from animal-themed puns such as the “Lemming Brothers Bank” to the creative designs of treetop housing in the city’s rainforest district, yet the film leaves the impression that we’ve still only scratched the surface of Zootopia’s world, leaving plenty of possibilities open for potential sequels.
The design of Zootopia is complimented by the perfect casting of its two lead characters. Ginnifer Goodwin is an ideal Judy Hopps, bringing not only a bright idealism to the hopeful little bunny, but also a fierce determination and a strong sense of justice. Goodwin’s performance is complex and emotional, and she finds just the right delivery to highlight Judy’s internal conflict or bring out her heartbreak or exasperation. She’s equally matched by Jason Bateman’s voicing of Nick Wilde, who is charmingly deceitful but who has hidden layers and an underlying sadness that occasionally rears its head. The rest of the cast is rounded out by familiar voices including Idris Elba as the buffalo chief of police or J.K. Simmons as the lion mayor of Zootopia. Jenny Slate, Raymond S. Persi, and Nate Torrence stand out as a sheep, a sloth, and a cheetah respectively, Tommy Chong, Kristen Bell, and Alan Tudyk (who has become for Disney Animation what John Ratzenberger has been for Pixar) all have cameos of various sizes, while Shakira gets to sing the film’s theme song and voice the pop star gazelle who sings it within the film. The characters of Zootopia strike a fine balance between embodying animal-based humor (sloths run the DMV while wolves can’t restrain from howling) and playing their roles in the noir detective mystery that forms the heart of the film’s plot. But through the movie we always circle back to Judy and Nick, whose relationship forms not only the film’s heart but serves as the backbone of its message.
Disney movies have always been “about” something, with larger themes that they’re typically given credit for. But while most of their films focus on ideas like holding onto your dreams, overcoming adversity, staying optimistic, having courage and being kind, Zootopia is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a different kind of animal altogether. It certainly has the empowering message that we’ve come to expect from Disney, about being true to yourself no matter who tries to tell you what you can’t do, but it also strikes at issues like racism, prejudice, and stereotypes far more sharply than most films of any sort and in a way that’s almost unheard of for animation. From its opening moments, when a young Judy puts on a play about how animals evolved beyond the primitive distinctions between predators and prey so that they can now grow up to be whatever they put their minds to, these themes are at the forefront of the film. The idea of predators and prey serves as the film’s central metaphor for racial tension, and it allows the writers and directors to touch on a much wider array of topics than I could have imagined possible. Zootopia is much more complex than a simple lecture that prejudice is bad, and it either symbolically or directly touches on issues like affirmative action, tokenism, racially tinged language and the use of slurs (in one moment Judy comments on how articulate Nick is, while in another she informs a coworker that it’s ok for bunnies to call each other cute but not for another species to call them cute), and internalized racism. More broadly the film speaks to how prejudices can be used and manipulated to sew fear and gain power by playing on those fears, and how focusing on our differences drives us apart. It challenges the idea that who someone is and where they come from serves as some kind of limitation on their potential, that we’re all capable of being more than just a “dumb bunny” or “sly fox” stereotype. And perhaps the most brilliant aspect of Zootopia is that it manages to offer up all of this commentary without resorting to making its animals direct allegories for particular races. Instead Judy and Nick, while obviously on different sides of the predator/prey coin, are both victims and perpetuators of prejudice, allowing the audience to digest the film’s messages no matter with which character or group they most identify.
I’m amazed that a film with three credited directors and at least 8 credited writers could wind up being so tightly focused. Most of the times when you get that many hands in the pot the end result is a mess with an inconsistent tone and a mish-mash of ideas. But Zootopia bucks that trend with clear themes, well-rounded characters, a clever mystery story, and a diverse and colorful yet logical setting. It’s funny without feeling like it’s just setting up jokes, with both its humor and its emotion relying on character as their driving force. It has the large, important, extremely current and topical themes, yet it never loses its heart or the characters in the shuffle. It serves up a mystery with clever twists and turns in the vein of Philip Marlowe or Veronica Mars, but without getting too dark for the kids in the audience. Zootopia is the perfect example of why I bristle whenever anyone automatically calls an animated film a “kiddie movie,” an ignorant and dismissive term that is one of my biggest pet peeves. Animation is simply a different medium than live action, equally capable of delivering profound drama as shallow comedy, and as such animated films run the same gamut as live action. I’m thankful that for every Minions, Ice Age sequel, or cheap cash-in cartoon we have movies like Inside Out, Frozen, and Zootopia. Just because a movie stars talking animals doesn’t mean it can’t touch your heart, teach you something, or inspire and move you. That’s what film does best, and Zootopia sits at the top of the art form, a prime example of power of cinema that just happens to star a rabbit and a fox.