The kids will love it, but Disney’s Zootopia is practically required viewing for adults.
A bunny can call another bunny ‘cute,’ but when other animals do it, that’s a little….
Just this week in Fairfax County, Virginia, a story broke on social media about a third-grader who was singled out by a few of his classmates; they told him he, among others, was certain to be “sent home” should a certain He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named become President. While we gasp and cry “but this is 2016!”, we don’t live in the shining era of equality some of us seem to think we do, and we honestly never have. The pressurized echo chambers of an election cycle don’t create our ugliness, but merely reveal it. Everywhere you look now, otherwise reasonable human beings are making decisions and proclamations born of prejudice and fear…and if you think these attitudes aren’t trickling down to our kids, you’re crazy.
The Walt Disney Studio doesn’t usually go for “message movies;” they aim to reach as broad an audience as possible, and scrub clean anything in their films that might alarm or offend. (Hence the removal of Song of the South from the earth.) A release like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast isn’t meant to be a film of its time, but for all time. It’s why they only recently began to challenge their own well-established gender norms in Frozen (which, third-party grafting of LGBT issues aside, is hardly political), and have left the emotional heavy lifting to their sister studio, Pixar. You can usually count on a Pixar film to make you cry; what is a Disney film for, but to provide solid family entertainment (and a healthy supply of toys)? It can be good, even great, but don’t expect it to challenge you, right?
Enter, with surprisingly little fanfare, Zootopia, a film as bracingly of-the-moment as Disney has ever produced. In returning to the “anthropomorphized animals” well that was the Mouse House’s stock-in-trade for so many decades, directors Byron Howard & Rich Moore (Tangled & Wreck-It Ralph, respectively) are able to Trojan-Horse powerful social commentary inside what would otherwise be a clever if by-the-numbers detective caper. The film’s marketing has only focused on the general aspects of the story (animals walk and talk and wear clothes; they live, in relative harmony, in a bustling urban jungle called Zootopia; there’s an intrepid bunny cop and a presumably sly fox), but that is skimming along the surface of a very deep lake.
That bunny, Judy Hopps (a delightfully chipper Ginnifer Goodwin), knows she’s fighting an uphill battle from the moment she wants to do anything with her life other than farm carrots. Against the strong advice of her parents and the expectations of her peers, she pushes through basic training and becomes the first rabbit admitted into the Zootopia P.D. — where even Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons) hints she’s mostly fulfilling some kind of affirmative action initiative. Her new commanding officer, the hulking water buffalo Chief Bogo (Idris Elba, exquisitely cast), doesn’t take her seriously and immediately dooms her to “meter maid” duty. It’s not just that she’s small — rabbits are generally viewed as country rubes, what with their nonstop breeding and poor education.
You see where this is going? That’s all just the first fifteen minutes, and we’ve already witnessed some striking world-building.
Judy isn’t without her own prejudices, either; all her life, she’s had an ingrained belief that “predators” — animals that used to eat her kind, before everyone evolved into the cosmopolitan, apparently murder-free society Zootopia is today — are hard to trust, and foxes least of all. Foxes, everyone knows, are shiftless schemers; Judy’s parents even insist she arm herself with some kind of vulpine spray repellant, just in case. And as soon as her first day on the job, an encounter with a particular red fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman, Arrested Development) seems to validate all of the stereotypes each one has about the other.
Zootopia the film is hardly subtle about its allegory, but this is one of those rare occasions where a little obviousness isn’t a bad thing. As Judy joins the force, the city is in the middle of a wave of disappearances — all predators. Some, we hear, might have gone “savage.” In this world, the population is 90% former prey species, and though they may have elected a lion to their highest public office, it doesn’t take much for long-dormant beliefs about certain creatures’ “biology” to surface. (Again — not subtle, but shocking in its honesty.) The city may be advertised as the place “where anyone can be anything,” but as Nick is quick to point out, not only is that not true, it was never true.
In any case, Judy’s investigation (with Nick essentially blackmailed into assisting her) is a smartly constructed bit of Noir storytelling, with a couple of good twists. More importantly, it’s an excuse for the film to visit the disparate corners of this mammalian metropolis, from the frigid Tundratown (where a feared mafioso known as “Mr. Big” rules with an iron fist), to the vine-strewn Rain Forest district, to a microscopically rendered borough for gerbils and voles. And even though it’s expected, we shouldn’t take for granted the lush detail poured into the film’s every frame — if Disney were to release some kind of massive, open-world video game set in Zootopia, I would rush out to buy it. There is so much to explore, and much more that is only hinted at in bits of dialogue or glances at maps.
Equally stunning is the film’s character work; on more than one occasion I was in awe of the animation prowess required for Chief Bogo’s physicality or Judy’s expression. And don’t worry: while it isn’t Disney’s most joke-filled effort, it’s still wickedly funny; the scene you’ve already seen, with the sloths at the DMV, is its most obvious by a mile, but boy did that punchline land in my theater. (I probably laughed hardest at a throwaway gag early on about the workers at “Lemming Brothers.”)
Disney’s animation department has been on an upswing ever since Pixar honchos John Lasseter and Ed Catmull were brought in to manage it ten years ago, and Zootopia represents a new high-water mark for the venerable studio. (If November’s Moana is this good, the balance of power will have officially shifted.) While it will likely not come close to the cultural ubiquity of Frozen, it deserves to, as it’s Disney’s strongest, most sophisticated, and most complete film in ages. Best of all, it has a chance to make a real difference in the minds of the children that watch it — and if we’re lucky, the parents as well. And not a moment too soon.