What’s interesting is that the film feels blatantly allegorical, and yet it doesn’t ever really tell you quite what the allegory actually is.
We’ve all seen talking animal animated movies, and we’ve all seen movies where a high-achieving rural youth moves to the big city to see if they can pass muster there. With Disney Animation Studios’ new film Zootopia, we get both.
Our rural youth is Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), who, after a run-in with a bully fox, decides she wants to become a police officer. There’s no precedent for that, as in the multifariously-cultured city of Zootopia, only the physically large animals are police officers. Ever perseverant, Judy attends and eventually excels in the police academy, and, upon being made Zootopia’s first bunny cop, she gets the frowned-upon job of being a meter maid. It doesn’t take long before she encounters a huckster fox named Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman) with whose fortunes she becomes entangled, and the pair of them spend most of the rest of the movie trying to solve a crime.
If we’re looking at our current, large animation studios (such as DreamWorks, Laika, Illumination, etc.), Disney Animation Studios is second in reliability of quality behind only Pixar (which studio is of course also under the Disney umbrella). DAS’ recent output, in particular, has been incredibly strong, too; I don’t need to tell you how much everyone loved Frozen, and I was a big fan of Wreck-It Ralph as well (which latter film shares its director, Rich Moore, with Zootopia, who co-directed this one with Tangled’s Byron Howard). In an effort to show Zootopia in this context, I’d put it beneath Frozen and Ralph but above Big Hero 6 in terms of relative quality of recent DAS output, and well above other recent animated family films, like Kung Fu Panda 3, Minions, and The Good Dinosaur. (It’s certainly no Inside Out, though…)
The most memorable aspect of Zootopia is its depiction of a big city (and celebration of same), which hosts all manner of the world’s mammals, large and small. All species (or is it races?) of animals get along and cohabitate just fine, but it doesn’t take much to stir up suspicion, either. About 10% of Zootopia’s population are traditionally known as predators, and the remainder are all traditional prey. The thrust of the movie comes from the predators on occasion “going savage,” i.e. returning to their more cannibalistic, scary ways, unable to live peacefully alongside those things their species once ate.
As handled by the film, this leads to a lot of thought on the part of the viewer. What’s interesting is that the film feels blatantly allegorical, and yet it doesn’t ever really tell you quite what the allegory actually is. The film essentially depicts a fear of the Other among the masses, and if inclined, the audience member could read it as a depiction of Islamophobia, the Black Lives Matter movement (a joke is made about how many gadgets the police officers have at their disposal…), the AIDS pandemic of the 80s and 90s, or whatever else. Whatever it feels like to you, that’s what it is. That said, it’s hard not to notice that the predators are said to go savage, which is the word so commonly used for Native Americans in old Westerns, and was trotted out again to describe Middle Easterners in American Sniper.
And as well done as that aspect of the film is, there are other areas where it falls short. There are a few too many needless pop culture references, which have been some sort of necessity since at least the release of Shrek in 2001. Some of these references are reasonably sharp, but even the better ones can be questioned—a stab at the success of the song “Let It Go” from Frozen fell completely flat in the audience I saw the film with, and I’m unsure on if this is because they didn’t get it or because they got it and didn’t find it funny. Other ventures into pop culture are less specific, like the city’s idolization of the singer Gazelle (voiced by Shakira), but those don’t always fare much better.
Ultimately, these complaints are little more than blips on the radar, as Zootopia gets a whole lot right. The animation is pretty (and with charming character design), the world it creates is interesting, it’s funny and entertaining, and leaves you with plenty to think about. | Pete Timmermann