Film Review: Zootopia

Disney Turns An Animal Utopia On Its Ear In This Savvy, Sociological Crime Caper

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
They make a cute couple
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Children’s cartoons in general and Disney animated films in particular aren’t exactly noted for their biting social commentary. And yet, the Mouse Corporation’s latest feature manages to wrap some surprisingly contemporary issues inside the skin of a fuzzy animal comedy. Zootopia starts off as a can-do tale of animal empowerment, then morphs into a sun-dappled L.A. noir crime comedy before ending up as a cautionary tale about racial prejudice and stereotyping. That sounds like a lot for a cartoon about talking animals to shoulder—and yet the 3D-animated caper remains energetic, buoyant and on point from original start to clever finish.

Zootopia takes place in a world where various animals have evolved into walking, talking, car-driving human analogues. So far, so Disney. Our entrée into this somewhat familiar setting is plucky country bunny Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin from “Big Love” and “Once Upon a Time”). Despite the fact that her family is comprised of simple carrot farmers, Judy optimistically dreams of becoming a tough-as-nails police officer in the big city of Zootopia. Although young animals are told they can grow up to be anything they want, Zootopia has never had a rabbit police officer. In this world predators and prey long ago evolved beyond their antagonistic “Tom and Jerry”-style relationships. And yet, it seems that predators are all still in charge—running the government, the police and holding just about every other position of power. That leaves sheep, rabbits, lemmings and the like to cover the less prestigious jobs. We’re all equal around here—but some of us are more equal.

Determined to make good on her barrier-breaking career goals, justice-minded Judy buckles down and graduates top of her class in the police academy. In short order the fuzzy-tailed go-getter moves to Zootopia and is soon working alongside lions, tigers and bears (oh, my). Relegated by the chief of police (Idris Elba, who should do far more voice work) to serve as a lowly meter maid, Judy finds her dreams of big-city success quickly butting up against harsh, glass-ceiling reality. As luck would have it, however, Zootopia is embroiled in a mysterious rash of missing persons cases, and Judy is unexpectedly thrust into the thick of it alongside a foxy (literally) con man named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman, channeling some of George Clooney’s louche charm).

Zootopia never draws a direct line between itself and such ripped-from-the-headlines topics as sexual discrimination, racism, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. But the story of a brutish minority of predators lording it over a meeker majority of vegetable-munchers is a clear enough metaphor for the adults in the audience. Thankfully, the subtexts about inclusively and prejudice are subtle. (At one point, Judy notes it’s OK for one bunny to call another bunny “cute,” but it’s a no-no for another species to use the descriptor.) Zootopia’s script could easily have gone the preachy, “Davey and Goliath” route—all heavy-handed moralizing and summaries of lessons learned. Instead—with its kooky characters and madcap chase scenes—Zootopia plays out like some loose, anthropomorphic mash-up of The Big Lebowski and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Goodwin and Bateman are perfect together, never getting too showy with their voice work and keeping their mismatched characters rooted in emotional reality. Goodwin’s desperate-to-prove-herself Judy and Bateman’s world-weary, self-serving Nick make for a wonderful contentious central duo—a classic screwball comedy pairing with “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” undertones. In due time, Nick and Judy set aside their preconceived notions and uncover a conspiracy that’s causing Zootopia’s predators to devolve to their more savage selves. Suddenly, and quite surprisingly, the film turns the central issue on its head and starts talking about reverse racism. Sure, the big, toothy predators have been sticking it to the little guys. But is that reason enough to brand them all as misguided and dangerous? The script ponders the issue while serving up some sharp social satire along the way. (A DMV office run, apporopriately enough, by sloths is another notable comic highlight.)

Thoroughly original, smartly conceptualized and brightly animated, Disney’s
Zootopia succeeds in mixing traditional cartoon hijinks with hot-button issues. Kids will walk away with a “can do” attitude. Adults will ponder the topics of institutional sexism and racism (speciesism?). And everybody will share a good laugh. The film isn’t an old-fashioned, easy-access, fairy tale-inspired smash like Frozen. But it represents an encouraging roadmap to the House of Mouse’s zeitgeist-grabbing, 21st century-rooted future.


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