‘Zootopia’ Review: Disney Animation’s Most Important and Political Film Yet
In the beginning of Disney‘s Zootopia, Judy Hopper, a young determined bunny with big aspirations, is told by her parents that complacency is better than chasing your dreams. “You know why your mom and I ended up so happy?” her small town carrot farmer dad asks. “We gave up on our dreams and settled!” At first Zootopia might seem like Disney once again banging their follow-your-dreams and never-give-up drum, but it quickly overcomes that outdated adage. Instead, Judy’s story of perseverance becomes the entry point for a larger movie about the tough realizations that come with leaving a bubble of blind comfort, and one that uses the animal kingdom to comment on prejudice, race relations and police brutality.
Refusing to settle, Judy, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, grows up to pursue her goal of becoming the first bunny police officer in Zootopia, a mammal metropolis where both prey and predators seemingly live in harmony. Yet Judy’s disillusionment soon fades as she discovers the big city isn’t as welcoming and accepting as she’d imagined. Here’s a place where one species discriminates against another in an ice cream shop, where a non-bunny calling a bunny “cute” is seen as offensive – “Only other bunnies can call us that,” Judy says. But it’s on her first day as an officer at the Zootopia Police Department that Judy comes face to face with her own prejudice.
After a childhood bullying incident, Judy has long carried the belief that all foxes are trouble. When she spots Nick (Jason Bateman), a fox seemingly up to no good, she immediately deems him suspicious. After following him, she realizes Nick has become the victim of another animal’s discrimination, and, feeling ashamed for her judgement, stands up for him. She pats herself on the back for overcoming her prejudice, but soon discovers Nick is just a con artist on the hustle. This is just one of the many moments in Zootopia where Disney refrains from simplistic characterizations to introduce variations of identity. Can a sly fox also be a trustworthy friend, and could a small bunny prove to be the most courageous in the animal kingdom?
Through asking minor questions with adorable animals as metaphors, Zootopia is able to explore the very real and complicated racial politics of our modern world. While the prey in Zootopia make up “90 percent” of the population, the predators represent ethnic minorities. In the movie, a mysterious substance created by the movie’s villain is introduced into the city to target predators, turning them “savage” as they revert to their animalistic, non-anthropomorphic ways. Now that the predators are assumed dangerous for nothing beyond their DNA, Zootopia uses the prey’s discriminatory treatment of the predators to reflect the American police force’s racism and violence towards the black community. Scenes of the animals locked in cages, prey fearfully sliding away from predators on subway trains, and the villain’s Hitler-esque goal of eradicating minorities may just be told through animation in a PG-rated movie, but they remain some of the strongest imagery Disney Animation has ever produced. Zootopia is no doubt the studio’s most overtly political movie yet, and one intent on conveying a very pertinent and powerful message.
As easy as it could be for the film to over serve the sentiments of equality, awareness and acceptance at its center, it manages to balance its earnest truths with lightheartedness. The first half of the film plays like a classic Disney look at talking animals brilliantly inserted into human situations. A DMV employed by slow-moving sloths is one of the film’s most clever scenes. A chase sequence through a mini city of mice where plastic hamster tubes are the public transportation showcases the film’s keen and delightful attention to detail.
However not all of the playful humor works, much of it cluttered with pop culture references that are either too on the nose, or just plain bad. During one scene in a science lab, a sheep in a yellow hazmat suit is a clear reference to Breaking Bad, though as if not obvious enough, enter animal versions of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. The worst running parody comes in a tiny Italian-accented mafia mouse called Mr. Big doing an insufferable Godfather impression. These juvenile attempts at humor, as well as a sappy musical ending, only cheapen the sharp story at the core, playing like desperate pleas to keep parents and older audiences engaged. With a story as politically aware as Zootopia though, mature audiences don’t need to be prodded along.
Unlike the older Disney films that skirted around harsher realities to uphold impractical messages, Zootopia shows a true evolution in the studio’s desire to tell young audiences stories that reflect the political zeitgeist. One classic contrast to Zootopia that reflects how far Disney has moved from outdated stories of divided identities is Disney’s The Fox and the Hound. The 1981 film uses two friends separated by their domesticated roles of the hunter and the hunted, showcasing a world where good and evil share no middle ground. Zootopia challenges that simplistic perspective, suggesting a world with varying degrees of right and wrong morals, one where the prey are just as susceptible to making hurtful assumptions as the predators are to discounting their worth.
The biggest strength of Zootopia is in how it acknowledges all identities are capable of carrying prejudice and wielding judgement, yet the first step toward change is awareness. And now more than ever, Disney is proving how aware it is. Hopefully Zootopia marks the beginning of a new era of bold, socially-conscious animated storytelling.