Directors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore
Genre: Family, Animation
Let us recall the first teaser for ZOOTOPIA released in Summer 2015. Jason Bateman described the magical city of Zootopia where anthropomorphic animals wear clothes and use cell phones, all while cracking puns like your dad three beers deep at a barbecue. This is a movie that no one wanted to see — certainly Disney’s final surrender to Dreamworks and the birth of a new wave of fursuit-wearing deviantartists. Yet, here we are today with ZOOTOPIA rocking a 99% on Rottentomatoes, being hailed by critics as one of Disney’s all-time best — and, surprisingly, they’re right. As it turns out, a bunny can be a cop and a terrible teaser can lead to a forward-minded animated film that’s beautiful inside and out.
Country bumpkin Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) becomes the first bunny cop in Zootopia, a city of opportunity where predator and prey live in harmony. She quickly learns, with the help of skeevy fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), that things are not as harmonious as she thought. The two pair up to crack an uncrackable case, overcome prejudice, and ultimately save the delicate balance of Zootopia. Also, Shakira is there.
Surely nothing bad can come from this!
This movie really hits you over the head with the theme in the first fifteen minutes. Judy’s family encourages her to give up her dream because police work is no job “for a bunny.” When Judy arrives in Zootopia only to have the donut-guzzling receptionist call her cute, she corrects him with “a bunny can call another bunny cute” but it’s uncouth for other species to do it. The aggressive yak chief of police (Idris Elba) sticks her on meter maid duty despite graduating at the top of her class, offering little explanation other than the obvious. You’d have to be pretty dense not to pick up what this movie is putting down.
And yet… ZOOTOPIA still manages to be incredibly vague despite the obvious premise. All furry jokes aside, letting this story play out in an animal world allows us humans to confront the issues presented from a safe distance, much like Aesop’s Fables. It makes the complicated issue even more accessible to a wide audience in a much more subtle way than verbally spelling it out. There are so many ways to interpret the predator/prey relationship in this film from a clear-cut racial or gender metaphor to an allegory for AIDS and the crack epidemic of the 1980s. There is never a moment when the movie is clearly talking about only one of these interpretations. ZOOTOPIA’s greatest strength is its ability to comment on prejudice as a whole. It is incredibly nuanced, and no one character is ever completely right or wrong.
Except foxes – foxes are dicks
Underdog (underbunny?) Judy is the perfect protagonist to carry this story along. Disney is somewhat famous for its cookie-cutter protagonists that any kid could project themselves onto, but in a story like this, it is extremely important for literally anyone to be able to identify with her in order for the message to get across. Personally, I identify with Judy as a young woman trying to break into a male-dominated field. A person of color might identify with her as a victim of stereotyping, a transgender individual might relate to the way she is discriminated against because of her body, and heck, even a straight white dude could relate to a kid with a dream her parents don’t necessarily approve of.
This is especially important because Judy is not the only victim of discrimination in ZOOTOPIA — far from it, in fact. The ability of any one audience member to identify with her and follow her journey as she learns about prejudices of her own is what makes this film remarkably eye-opening. It is never as clear cut as “prey are discriminated against, and predators are fuzzy racists” or vice versa. It varies across the board, down to specific characters, with many welcome surprises along the way. It even goes so far as to say that each person has their own unique set of limitations, some of which might subscribe to stereotypes, some of which might not.
But, y’know, sometimes
“PC Culture” has become an unavoidable part of modern life. If the overwhelming success of TRANSPARENT, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, and the latest season of SOUTH PARK are any indication, it’s not going away. I am hard pressed to imagine a more digestible, frank, and eloquent Recognizing Prejudice 101 for the stragglers still not quite on board with how the whole thing works. Sure, the mystery element of the plot doesn’t really leave you on the edge of your seat all the time. The film walks the line of going a little too on-the-nose with the theme here and there. I can’t count the number of uncouth fanmade images I’ve stumbled on performing only cursory google searches for the pictures in this article, but this film really makes it all worth it. Dazzling animation, obsessive attention to detail, and a level of nuance difficult for most adult-oriented films to pull off make ZOOTOPIA the definition of a modern classic.