Zootopia is the latest talking animals offering from Walt Disney Animation Studios. I wasn’t entirely sold on the idea of Zootopia until I saw the extended trailer featuring the DMV and a Sloth. I’m sure you’ve seen it. It’s been everywhere, it’s hilarious, and it’s almost everything about this movie that’s good: smart, great concept, slightly irreverent, accessible. The only thing that scene didn’t have that the overall movie does is a clear message about life and society. The film’s got that in spades too, but we’ll get there. At its heart Zootopia is essentially 48 Hours as a talking animal cartoon, and it’s a damn pip.
Zootopia is set in a world where animals have evolved to the point where they can walk and talk and think like humans. This world resembles our world in certain ways. The animals have schools and jobs and county fairs. They have rural areas and cities. Or, at least one city, the titular Zootopia, a city where any animal can go and be who they want to be. This is where Judy Hopps wants to go to be a police officer. Judy is a bunny when we meet her and she wants desperately to grow up and become the first Rabbit police officer in Zootopia. Of course, everyone tells her she’s nuts. Rabbit’s don’t become police officers! In her town, her family are all carrot farmers. The police force is for bigger, scarier animals like Bulls, Elephants, and Cheetahs.
Judy (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin of Walk the Line and Once Upon a Time fame) does indeed make it to Zootopia as a police officer where her Chief, a Bull voiced by Idris Elba (you’ll know him for being Idris Elba, badass among badasses) promptly assigns her to parking duty. Disappointed but determined, Judy decides to become the best parking cop she can be. Events transpire, as events tend to do, and Judy finds herself mixed up in a missing persons case that leads her into film noir/buddy cop territory. Who’s her buddy? The affable and slick Nick Wilde, a tricky Fox voiced by Jason Bateman. Judy catches Nick in some genuine Fox tomfoolery and enlists his help in solving the mystery. He’s a con man and thus will have connections to the underworld that Judy needs to solve her case. Judy and Nick work together, Judy is the straight man in the partnership; Nick is the wise cracking side kick.
The film does quite well operating in this buddy-cop/film-noir/detective-comedy-send-up mode. The DMV scene is just as funny as in the commercials with a couple extra touches we didn’t see before. There’s also a great play on The Godfather that had me cracking up. The plot moves along briskly with some great action sequences and jokes along the way. There are also quite a few different districts or zones in Zootopia, so each set piece gets to be played out in a very different type of location (miniature rodent-ville, icy area, jungle area, etc…) which, along with the animal work, really shows off the gorgeous computer animation at play here. The brisk pace continues even as the film moves through its detective story second and third act plot machinations-a tricky thing for any film to pull off.
There’s another aspect of this film I haven’t dug into yet, and that’s the socio-political message that is very much the heart and soul of the film. I saw Zootopia three days ago and I’m still thinking about this particular part of the film. On the surface, the message is a great one for kids: you can be whomever you want to be, no matter who you are or where you come from. One shouldn’t let socioeconomic status, social mores or even biological limitations put a damper on your dreams and ambitions, nor should you let these things color how you perceive or judge another person animal. I’m all about this. I do think, however, that the film is a little muddled in how this message is conveyed in the film. It’s not as simple as “Judy wants to be a police officer, but Rabbits aren’t well equipped to be cops.” That’s definitely there, but the message is also deeply intertwined within the plot in other ways. It’s central to the missing persons case Judy is working on and it becomes an integral part of Judy and Nick’s relationship. The message is completely wrapped up in the stakes of the film, which is great! That’s how good screenwriting is supposed to work, BUT the articulation of that message is a little fuzzy.
Nick is a predator. It’s his natural state. He, and the rest of his species, have evolved so as not to kill any prey they might see, but still, inherently Nick is a predator. Judy, on the other hand, is prey. She, and the rest of her species, have evolved not to run at the sight of predators, but still, inherently they are prey. This dynamic is at play with all the animals we run into in Zootopia, they are either predator or prey. This is the crux of the conflict both in Nick and Judy’s relationship, and also the missing persons case, although I won’t really get into that here. No spoilers, I promise. My problem with this is that this reduces the world into a binary: predator or prey. This means personality and behavioral traits are also, in a way, reduced down into a binary. Black or white. Day or night. Good or bad. Etc… Overall the message of the film is a good one, but I fear that when the metaphor(s) at work here are parsed out to their logical conclusions, they might be a tad reductive and thus, the message about inclusion and acceptance, a bit empty. Not to mention, when reaching for metaphor on this grand a scale, it’s hard for an audience member (or maybe it’s just me) to start to try to connect dots in the metaphor to their counterpoints in real life. If Nick is a predator and a criminal and his baser instincts are to kill prey—who is he in the real world? How am I to interpret the traits he displays and how those might play out in humans? Which humans? Who does Nick and the other predators represent? Might this infer stereotypes we don’t want to infer?
Or maybe I’m over thinking it. Maybe it’s best to compare it back to it’s most obvious influence: 48 Hrs. starring Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. What made that movie so good was that it wasn’t just a buddy cop film, it also very knowingly was playing around with issues of class and race within the tropes of the buddy cop comedy/drama. Love it or hate it, Murphy in particular was knowingly playing on, harnessing, and subverting very broad racial stereotypes in that film. A lot of the same thing is going on here, but like 48 Hrs., I think the film could be read both as progressive and also reinforcing a lot of the stereotypes it’s aiming to critique. Or maybe I really am overthinking it.
Overall there’s a ton to like in this film. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s beautiful to look at, and the voice talent is top notch. Aside from Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, and Idris Elba, we’ve also got J.K. Simmons as the mayor and Jenny Slate as the Mayor’s assistant. Both are excellent, as are Bonnie Hunt, Octavia Spencer, and Alan Tudyk. Zootopia opens on March 4th.