Zootopia was inspired by Robin Hood and the idea of animals in tiny clothes. Thanks to a incredibly talented team under supervision of Tangled’s Byron Howard, Disney delivers its wildest movie ever. Doubling down on the social themes ignited by Frozen it matches every bu
ddy cop comedy and gritty detective with a story so fast-paced, rich and unpredictable it’s an absolute wonder it ever got made. But more than anything, Zootopia is a Disney movie that’s unapologetically topical.
Judy Hopps is a bunny who lives in a world where all animals have evolved into social beings, capable of living side by side in ostensible harmony. Growing up in the peaceful country side, it is her desire is to be a cop who protects and serves. Her parents fear for her well being and wish she would be anything else. A young fox called tells her she will never be a cop and he scars her face. Though she’s physically down, Judy literally gets up and continues her mission. She becomes the first bunny to ever graduate from the police academy and moves to the big city Zootopia where predator and prey alike live together. Her confidence and strong sense of self are unreachable for any amount of hatred, words or fear. It’s her resilient character that drives her to better a world that tells her she can’t.
There is a long history of movies about underdogs who are told they can’t be what they want to be because of what they are. But those movies often feature white scrawny males who get a mentor who teaches them to just believe in themselves. But Judy isn’t a man, she doesn’t have the luxury of a mentor and her physical inferiority cannot be overcome by extra hours in the gym. Judy already believes in herself despite not having a single soul in her life who confirms this. Every time she fails, she gets herself back up and learns to be great by using her skills as a bunny to outperform even the biggest predators. This is the hero journey of pure, unadulterated character who doesn’t need to learn anything; it’s her environment who needs to stop holding her back. It’s a subtle but fundamental difference from other movies, one that sets off a different story so socially conscious, intelligently handled and balancing painful confrontation and bittersweet ambiguity. Where other movies spend their entire duration for the main character to overcome prejudice and prove to the world they can succeed, that’s only the start of Judy’s journey through Zootopia.
Zootopia is a relentless movie about racial bias and prejudice. The way Bambi and The Lion King pulled off heavy emotional journeys by having trauma’s happen to animals in a human free world, Zootopia breaks down walls and glass ceilings by focusing on social topics. There’s enough ambiguity for anyone to project any kind of race onto any animal, partly because the ethnicities of the voice cast are deliberately spread out over all types. It might be the first movie ever where the two lead actors are white and that on itself serves a strong purpose. Within the story itself there is absolutely no misunderstanding between who’s predator and who’s prey. In fact, all roles, big and small are so carefully delegated between these two types of mammals (interestingly birds, fish and reptiles are absent) that the movie transcends any sort of stereotyping. And that is precisely the point. Zootopia isn’t even lightly progressive in the way Frozen was, it’s down right realistic as it takes viewers on a meaningful game of association, profiling and prejudice of all kind. It also takes several shades of evil and what exactly causes it. By the time the movie reaches its climax all predisposed notions of right and wrong in Disney movies have been thrown out. It’s more morally complex than almost anything ever made for adults.
The only subject where the movie isn’t ambiguous at all is sexism. There’s a distinct difference between female characters and male characters and how they treat each other. The two main characters are a man and a woman, not because they are meant to be romantically involved but because they need to respect each other and become equal partners in order to fulfil their mission. When Judy excels on her own in the Police Academy, it’s her female teacher who smiles proudly. It’s primarily the men in her life who keep Judy down. And in the ultimate move of Disney ridding itself from its racist, sexist and homophobic roots, there’s a best friend with unapologetically feminine qualities who bonds with a stereotypical masculine man over their shared infatuation with a female popstar. Hello, 2016.
For all the time it spends on naturally assigned roles versus social roles, it also manages to put out a rather exciting detective story. It must be noted that this plot moves blazing fast because it largely depends on coincidence to propel the story forward. It hardly matters though as the action moves through the beautifully imaginative segments of the titular city. The different neighbourhoods are so spectacular and exciting it almost feels like a waste to spend so little time there. Even characters that are introduced are all exceptionally interesting and well thought through in respect to the central theme. Especially the rat daughter, who uncoincidentally resembles a real world celebrity, of a Godfather type crime boss does a lot in very little screen time.
In the end it’s the two main characters relationship which suffers the most from the fast-paced plot and high moral of the story. Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin delivering a career milestone in emotional range) and Nick Wilde (a surprisingly toned down Jason Bateman) are both well developed, beautifully strong characters who are both interesting enough to carry the movie by themselves. Together, they should be magic but they are not. Perhaps it’s because the weight of the story reduces their emotional moments to economic brief dialogues or that their comedic banter is perhaps the most traditional part of the entire movie. In any case they are a far cry from, for example the platonic friendships of Lilo & Stitch or Marlin & Dory. For its strong social message, Frozen was ultimately about two sisters finding their way back to each other. The Lion King, for all its spiritual themes, still featured a well developed love story. In its haste, Zootopia forgets to do the same for its core friendship. Does that matter? Well, it prevents a landmark movie from being timeless. But right now, for a generation of kids, and let’s be honest, their parents who need it way more, Zootopia offers the most important social conversation in the history of cinema by the biggest movie brand in the world. Judy is indeed going to make the world a better place in the way only a Disney movie can.