Zootopia and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore
With Pixar not really living up to its namesake in the last couple of years (not the biggest fan of Inside Out), it’s interesting to see their decline coincide with Disney Animation Studio’s recent output steadily increase in quality. I didn’t see Big Hero Six, but Tangled, Frozen, and Wreck-It Ralph are all very strong features from a studio that had been relying on Pixar for some time to keep Disney’s theatrical output relevant and groundbreaking. Not only that, but they’ve done a good job of keeping their ideas interesting and relevant, from Frozen’s LGBT undertones, to Wreck-It Ralph’s use of new(ish) media to tell a classic Disney fable about a lost princess. Now they’re giving something that ALL internet users are at least passingly familiar with; FURRIES! Does this anthropomorphic animal tale manage to continue Disney Animation Studio’s valiant escape from the shadow of Pixar, or are we in for another bland kid’s movie that’ll only succeed due to the brand name recognition? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the trials and tribulations of one Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin); the first rabbit police in… the country? I don’t know the exact geography here, but her becoming a police officer (valedictorian at the academy) is such a big deal that she gets assigned to Zootopia; the most vibrant, diverse, and technologically advanced cities on Earth… or Animal Planet. Whatever. Unfortunately for our friend here, she’s relegated to menial tasks as the chief of police Bongo (Idris Elba) has no confidence in her abilities to perform in a job that is typically handled by much larger animals. When a case involving a series of missing animals (predators specifically) gets out of hand though, she has an opportunity to prove herself by tracking down an otter who was among those missing. However, because of the necessities of screenwriting conventions, Bongo somehow manages to turn this into an ego contest and has officer Hopps agree to quit the force if she doesn’t solve this case in forty-eight hours (I sense a reference there!) which you would think wouldn’t be something he can force her to do, but I guess she’s got something to prove and agrees to the wager. The only lead she has is a local fox who’s already been giving her grief named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) who may have seen the otter and knows where he might have gone. After some underhanded tricks of her own (hey, the fox started it!) she finally convinces him to assist her in finding this otter and find out what it is that has caused these animals to go missing. Will they be able to solve the case within the arbitrary time limit? What secrets are there to uncover in the dark underbelly of this supposed utopian city? Wait, is this gonna be the most socially conscious movie about race relations this year!?
The movie is trying to bite off way more than it can chew, but it’s still a pretty solid animated feature from Disney. It puts me in mind of something like Monsters Inc where we have this world that is fantastical and filled with creatures far different from our own (furries instead of monsters this time), but the people who populate it are exceedingly average and relatable. However, it’s not as strong as Monsters Inc (or any pre Cars 2 Pixar movie) because it never really finds the focus it needs to be the strong character piece that we got from Pixar’s tale about unorthodox working Joes; instead opting to try and have a big message set in a big world. That can work IF it was more of an ensemble or had a better resolution to the overarching message it wanted to have, but instead it feels a bit scattershot and over ambitious in its attempts to nail everything from race relations, sexism, cop movie tropes, animal puns, God Father Parodies, and… whatever the hell is going on here.
The movie does work in a lot of areas, particularly in its animation and designs which allow for a lot of unique visuals and entertaining sight gags. Stuffing animal heads on top of suits or very standard looking uniforms is pretty funny in this, and they continue to build upon this gag throughout the movie that keeps it from getting stale, especially when we get to the wolves that look like every stock mercenary bad guy group in any number of action films. They also do a lot of world building through the visuals with the world basically breaking down into large animals, small animals and tiny animals, with a lot of logistics thought out… sort of. The thing is that a lot of this is done for either a gag or just to provide an interesting visual, but if you think about it for more than a minute or two, the logic of this entire world starts to break down very quickly. One of the primary conflicts here involves Officer Hopps not getting respected on the force because she’s a rabbit which means she’s tiny and weak in a department that is all about size and power. The thing is that this is a world where creatures of ALL sizes have to be protected, and there are even parts of the city of Zootopia that are designed for smaller creatures which we see in an early chase sequence (Hopps chases a suspect through a rodent district). Why aren’t there officers specifically for those sections of town when the larger animals can’t effectively work? This makes her being the first rabbit officer seem completely contrived considering how much effort the movie puts into making this world as diverse and densely populated as it is. Sure the movie’s subtext is all about racial tensions and micro-aggressions (we’ll get to that soon enough), but the fact that there are mice and hamsters going about their daily lives alongside lions and giraffes makes it hard to believe that the ONE area where the “size” barrier hasn’t been breached yet is in the police force.
What also works here is the relationship between Hopps and Nick which has that good cop/bad guy shtick working for it a la 48 hours (told you that was a reference). True, the guy isn’t taken out of jail to solve the case, but he is a crook and the two of them have that love/hate thing going on with some well written dialogue to keep their interactions fresh. Sure, it’s a big cop movie cliché, but of ALL the big cop movie clichés they throw in here, I think this one works the best because it’s not just a reference to that gag and is instead given time to develop into something more. It’s used as more of a starting point for these characters to get along rather than the entire joke in and of itself such as what we get with the angry black chief.
So the movie manages to be a fantastic looking romp with two likable characters whose story may be a pile of clichés, but they are well executed and enjoyable. So what’s the big issue? Where did this movie’s reach far exceed its grasp? Well the movie wants to make a statement about race relations (and sexism, though that seems to be much less prominent) and yet the payoff for when the movie goes into high gear on this issue is surprisingly underwhelming. For about two thirds of the movie, it works because it’s simply a background element to the main story about Hopps trying to crack the case. Everyone underestimates her for being a rabbit, and Nick is always mistrusted because he’s a fox. Not only that, but Hopps has been told her whole life that foxes are bad (even had a bad experience with a childhood bully) and so she has to work through her own prejudices as well. It works considering how much we like these two characters and it’s a story that’s relevant which makes it that much more important to be addressed in a kids movie. That third act though is kind of a mess overall and turns that subtext into the entire point of the movie. They eventually crack the case (somewhat) and it turns out that the predators that had gone missing where going wild and reverting back to their natural instincts as true animals rather than anthropomorphic animals. Once this is revealed, the movie suddenly becomes about the prey fearing the other predators in their neighborhood due to what has happened to some of them. Okay, so they’re stepping it up to this being a societal issue and not a character issue. There is some solid commentary here with there being anti-predator rallies and the police deciding to switch the guy front desk out with someone who won’t be as “intimidating”. For a while, I was a cynical about this as I tried to outsmart the movie’s use of these social issues in the context of the animal kingdom, with arguments such as “well not all herbivories have a natural predator such as Rhinoceroses who can be just as dangerous as any carnivore, so why aren’t small animals afraid of them?” but the thing revelation I eventually came to is that you really can’t out-logic racism and discrimination. We see dumbasses in real life holding signs next to buses filled with needy children telling them to go back home, and yet I’m wasting my time trying to parse the nuances of a fox being told he can’t order ice cream at a place run by elephants?
The problem comes in though when they introduce the biggest MacGuffin’s I’ve seen in pretty much any movie and use it to explain the predators going wild. Not only does this SEVERALY undercut the moral of the story, but it also turns the third act into a Breaking Bad rehash that even name drops Walter and Jesse. Well it’s a good thing we solved racism forever after discovering that this magic bullet (almost literally) was the cause for some predators to do bad things! Good thing too, because IF some predators were doing bad things of their own free will, then there wouldn’t be any easy answers for the prey to no longer fear them and treat them with the respect they deserve. Also, just throwing this out there, I think it KIND of misses the point when what we focus on more than the people getting discriminated against is Judy Hopps’s guilt for her part in it. This is a movie where animals start to get discriminated against towards the end, and yet the emotional gut punch is NOT because of this, but because Hopps is feeling bad. That feels a bit off. The movie could have just had it end with Hopps and Nick working through their issues, but the movie felt the need to include THE ENTIRE WORLD into this, which doesn’t come with easy answers or simple antidotes for society’s ills. It’s just a disappointingly simple conclusion for a movie that didn’t even need to have that kind of conflict when it already got its message across on a personal level.
So what can we learn from all this? Despite Disney’s reputation for being THE MONOLITH OF MIDDLE THE ROAD WHITE AMERICAN ENTERTAINMENT, they’re still a company that tries to make movies and cartoons aimed at children to be engaging and relevant for whatever time they’re made in. This movie is an example of that, and while I don’t think it achieved everything it was going for, it still manages to be a good movie worthy of the Disney label and is probably one of the better animated features we’ll get this year. It seems tailor made for a sequel, and while there are PLENTY of places to improve upon (Godfather jokes? Seriously?) I don’t know where else they would want the story to go. Maybe if they hadn’t so thoroughly diffused the idea of racism on a societal and institutional scale with the use of the MacGuffin, they could keep going with the message they’re trying to impart about discrimination. That or they’ll drop the idea entirely and just make it about Hopps and Nick doing more cop stuff which would take away a lot of what made this movie what it is. Whatever the future holds for Zootopia, I definitely recommend checking it out, especially if you’re a fan of animated features, or even if you just want to see anthropomorphic animals in a main stream blockbuster. I’m sure you won’t leave disappointed, whichever camp you fall into.
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