Zootopia might not be the best of Disney’s recent in-house movies, but it’s easily the most political film the Mouse House has turned out in a good while. Just in time for an especially bitter American campaign season, here’s a movie about the dangers of ignorance and institutional discrimination. But you know, for kids. With cute animals and stuff.
Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) grew up on a quaint carrot farm, but from a young age Judy’s dreams have outpaced both her family’s means and her physical stature. Zootopia takes place in a world completely populated by anthropomorphic animals, where predators and prey live together in relative harmony and have suppressed their more savage urges. And in this universe, Judy knows and believes that she can be anything she wants to be, not just what she grew up being told she’s supposed to be. If lions and lambs can be coworkers, who says Judy can’t be a police officer, tasked with making the world a better place?
Well, everybody does. After struggling her way through police academy, Judy’s assigned to Zootopia, where she packs her bags and arrives in the big city, literally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, to start her new life in the glamorous world of urban law enforcement. What’s striking early on in Zootopia is how quickly and firmly it’s established that Officer Hopps is out of her depth. It’s not that she’s incapable, not by a long shot. Even if that’s what Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) immediately assumes when he puts her on meter reading duty as the smallest animal on the force. It’s that there’s a doe-eyed innocence to Judy that borders on irresponsible, particularly when she falls for an elaborate con by Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a morally wayward fox who pegs Judy for the uninitiated transplant she is from the second they meet.
Until it reveals the larger game at hand, Zootopia treads familiar ground with its story of a young upstart learning the ropes of the urban jungle (get it?) the hard way. The film’s expansive cast of characters, from J.K. Simmons‘ lion of a mayor to Shakira as a socially concerned pop star, eventually becomes exhausting when over halfway through Zootopia is still layering on ever more nutty (and let’s be honest here, toyetic) appearances, whether to move the film’s central mystery along or to make an extended Godfather reference that’s funny, if sort of inexplicable. Zootopia does an above-average job of making its many disparate setpieces feel more cohesive when compared to most other animated family films like it, but the film still falls into the Shrek trap of attempting to shoehorn in something for every possible viewer, whether or not it fits.
When the film gets to play around with the innate comedy of animals sporadically doing animal things while otherwise acting like people, Zootopia has a goofy appeal to it that particularly pops in the exchanges between Goodwin and Bateman as reluctant partners attempting to solve the disappearances of over a dozen animals, some of which have seemingly reverted to their basest instincts. Given that the film is structured as a kind of police procedural, with Goodwin and Bateman as the respective good and bad cops, some of Zootopia’s best bits are couched in the little throwaway jokes as they pursue the increasingly complicated case. The sloth DMV sequence that’s been on every television channel for the past month is a highlight, as is a sub-neighborhood within Zootopia for small rodents, where adorable hamsters commute from building to building through colorful tubes and a rabbit and weasel essentially start a kaiju fight in the heart of downtown. And wolves attempting to stop other wolves from howling in fear of “a howl” breaking out is the kind of easy gag that still just works.
It’s a fleet-footed movie, and even if some of its jokes land a lot better than others (FaceTime is now MuzzleTime, and there’s a fair number of bits in that corny vein as well), Zootopia is still a cut above the average CGI comedy. This is due to the animation as much as anything; the film has a few genuinely breathtaking moments, which come at a premium in a market so oversaturated with animated family movies. One extended chase sequence through a rain-soaked jungle at night makes striking use of moonlight effects, and an early introduction to Zootopia via monorail is structured like a video game cutscene introducing the world but still manages to flood the screen with appealing flourishes of visual innovation in long, confident shots. There’s a depth to the city that shows how far the form has come in a short time, and Zootopia is better off for it, especially when it still ultimately doesn’t break away from the familiar Disney formula as much as some of the studio’s other recent films have managed.
But the one distinct way in which Zootopia does break against the grain is in the other story the film tells, the one that builds underneath the investigation. It’s a seed the film plants early, when Judy’s worried parents force her to take fox repellent with her to the city, just in case. And when Judy meets Nick for the first time, and instinctively reaches for that repellent before they’ve even exchanged a word. And later in the film, when Judy’s asked to deliver the press briefing about the case of the “savage” animals, and learns that the way she talks about other animals in public can affect a lot of them in a very real and negative way. Judy laments that “I came here to make the world a better place, but I think I broke it,” and it’s around that time that Zootopia proves itself to be firing on a deeper, more thoughtful level as well.
In one sense Zootopia is a family movie that manages to pull off a Breaking Bad reference that actually works in context. But in another, it’s also a parable about the dangers of judging those around you based on what’s built into their very DNA alone, and what a public frenzy built on stereotypes can do to even the most stable, idyllic ecosystems. Perhaps even more boldly, it’s also an argument against the dangers of groupthink, and how violence isn’t the only way that people harm each other. And even if it’s hard to shake the feeling throughout that this part of the film is more for the parents than for the kids they’re bringing along, Zootopia still finds ways to make these complicated, tense ideas digestible for a kid. Or for anybody who feels a little twinge at the sight of a family movie including a shot of a frightened rabbit pulling her daughter away from a tiger, just because she’s been told he might be dangerous. It’s not often a cute animal movie asks its audience to think on whether they’ve ever reached for the fox repellent a little too quickly, but here we are.