As I explained when reviewing the much-loved Inside Out last summer, I have a complicated relationship with CG animation. I typically find the medium’s general look to be uninteresting & its tendency for easy pun humor to be a relatively lazy waste of ensemble voice talent. It’s often difficult for me to differentiate between absolutely dire properties like Norm of the North & The Angry Birds Movie and more prestigious pictures like all of Pixar’s non-Cars output. Still, every now & then a film will sneak past my defenses. Despite the film’s flat, Puzzle Bobble-esque visual palette & simplistic modes of characterization, I found Inside Out to be an impressive feat in worldbuilding, a remarkably well mapped-out personification of how the inner mind acts & develops. The buzz for Inside Out was fairly massive, though (mostly due to its reputation as a Pixar release), so liking that movie wasn’t really much of a surprise. What really caught me off-guard was how much I enjoyed the latest Disney-produced CG animation Zootopia. After a horrendous ad campaign that has driven me to near-unbearable frustration with merciless repetition of its sloths-at-the-DMV gag (Get it? Because the DMV is slow! Like sloths! Haha. Ha.) & Disney directly reaching out to furries (seriously), I was prepared to hate Zootopia, or at least to brush it off as a trifle. Instead, it won me over wholesale. This is a really great, truly enjoyable film, one that even manages to feel Important without ever feeling overly didactic. Honestly, despite myself, I enjoyed it far more than I did Inside Out, which is supposedly the “smarter” picture.
The reason I enjoyed Zootopia so much is that it takes Inside Out’s meticulous attention to worldbuilding & applies it to a complicated narrative with themes that extend far beyond its own setting’s structure. Inside Out gets sort of lost in its own headspace. Zootopia maps out a metropolis-sized amusement park of interwoven, animal-themed neighborhoods (Tundra Town, The Rainforest District, etc.), but uses that intricate sense of setting as a launching pad instead of an end goal. Much like with George Miller’s surrealist classic Babe 2: Pig in the City, Zootopia follows a small animal taking on a giant metropolis far beyond her limited resources. As the film’s bunny cop protagonist navigates neighborhoods designed for animals that range in size from elephants to mice, it’s near impossible not to sit in awe of the thought & care that went into the film’s setting (or to get lost in how cute the mouse-sized miniatures can be). However, that setting isn’t the film’s main focus, but merely a platform meant to host an exploration of the film’s true focus: institutionalized racism & other forms of prejudice. Our fearless bunny cop protagonist, Officer Judy Hopps (voiced by Once Upon a Time’s Ginnifer Goodwin), attempts to earn respect in a system that doesn’t want her, repeatedly kicking in shut doors with the boundless enthusiasm of a Leslie Knope. Because of her size & heritage, her dream of being a Brannigan-esque supercop is often shot down just because she’s the wrong species. Even her parents advise her to abandon her goals, trying to sell her “the beauty of complacency” & the idea that “It’s great to have dreams just as long as you don’t believe in them.” Hopps refuses to stay in her predetermined place as a milquetoast carrot farmer, though, and pursues earning respect as an exceptional officer of the law. Her journey takes the shape of a missing person case that recalls noir-style mysteries of yesteryear & eventually dismantles (or at the very least disrupts) the very system mean to break her spirit. Officer Hopps might weave through various animal-themed neighborhoods with impressive attention to detail & constantly-shifting perspectives, but the intricate worldbuilding is meant to serve the purpose of her story, not the other way around.
As for the anti-prejudice allegory at the heart of Zootopia, it’s a metaphor that probably works best without being examined too closely. There are plenty of direct references in the film to recognizable, real-world issues (such as racial-profiling in the modern day police state & workplace politics that devalue contributions from women), but no one systemic underdog group works as a direct correlation to the film’s interspecies politics. This isn’t a film solely about racism or sexism or any other specific kind of institutionalized prejudice. It’s a film that addresses all of these issues in a more vaguely-defined dichotomy (kind of the way The X-Men have been metaphorically worked into all kinds of social issue metaphors over the decades). Zootopia structures its anti-prejudice moralizing around the way various species of “vicious” predators & “meek” prey have been conditioned to stereotype & alienate one another. Small animals can’t get giant cops to care about their misfortunes. Coded language (such as calling an animal of a more disadvantaged species “articulate” as a compliment) raise tensions between disparate groups. Well-meaning victims of prejudice are revealed to be just as guilty of wrongly (and constantly) judging a book by its cover. Zootopia is at its smartest when it vilifies a broken institution that has pitted the animals that populate its concrete jungle against one another instead of blaming the individuals influenced by that system for their problematic behavior. A lesser, more simplistic film would’ve introduced an intolerant, speciesist villain for the narrative to shame & punish. Zootopia instead points to various ways prejudice can take form even at the hands of the well-intentioned. It prompts the audience to examine their own thoughts & actions for ways they can uknowingly hurt the feelings or limit the opportunities of their fellow citizens by losing sight of the ideal that “Anyone can be anything.” It’s there that the film finds a beauty in endless diversity & a destructive force in institutionalized prejudice that both extend far beyond a cartoonishly simplified message like “racism = bad, so you shouldn’t be racist”.
It’s hard for me to say for sure if audiences, particularly children, are likely to find Zootopia funny. The gags that worked best for me were stray references to ancient media like The Godfather & REM. I was also amused to hear the always-welcome voices of Jenny Slate, Idris Elba, and Jason Bateman included in the cast (if nothing else, so that people I find entertaining could cash in on some of some of those sweet, sweet Disney dollars). For the most part, though, the film is more poignant than it is humorous. Despite what the film’s never-ending sloth DMV advertising campaign might’ve been trying to sell you, this is not a film that lives or dies by an onslaught of animal puns & exaggerated, species-based attributes. It’s much closer to the heartfelt, earnest end of the Disney spectrum. The production company/financial titan has become so adept at emotional shorthand that Zootopia had me constantly crying throughout its runtime, tearing up at the most saccharine of character beats (such as, say, a hopeful bunny rabbit defiantly ignoring her naysayers because “Anyone can be anything”) as soon as five or ten minutes in. The impressive thing is that Disney is able to wield this tonal power while both undermining the racial & gendered stereotypes of its own past and bitterly teaching the lesson that “Life isn’t a cartoon musical where you sing a song & all of your insipid dreams come true.” There were a few aspects of Zootopia that didn’t land for me: an insufferably shitty pop song performed (twice) by Shakira, a stray foxes-are-like-this-bunnies-are-like-that gag or three, some uncomfortable aspects of the anti-prejudice metaphor played for cutesy humor, etc. For the most part, though, the film is massively impressive (for a CG animation starring cute, talking animals). The attention-to-detail in its setting, the narrative stakes of its central mystery, and the overall theme of the ways institutionalized prejudice can corrupt & destroy our personal relationships all amount to a truly special, seemingly Important film. Pint-sized audiences might not squeal with laughter, but they might actually learn something a little more complex & nuanced than Inside Out’s assertion that “It’s okay to be sad sometimes” (which is a valid lesson for kids to learn, just one with a much easier path to success).