Disney’s 2nd Renaissance continues in full force with Zootopia, a movie with such a powerful, contemporary message that it’s sure to become a defining animated film of the decade. It’s just too timely (not to mention too insanely colorful/adorable) to ignore. Like last year’s Inside Out, Zootopia feels like an essential movie for the entire human race, both young and old, to experience. Both movies take complex elements of human behavior and psychology (in this case, prejudice) represented and deconstructed in simple, easily-digestible, and strikingly visual form. That said, Zootopia’s social commentary is such an astonishing work of genius that its world-building and heaping of animals puns and self-aware gags sometimes struggle to keep up.
The bulk of the story begins where many traditional kids’ movies end: Small-town rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin, which would be an equally good rabbit name) has finally proven everyone wrong, realizing her lifelong dream of becoming a police officer in the modern, diverse metropolis of Zootopia. But unlike many of Disney’s timeless classics and much like real life, the ‘ever after’ in Zootopia doesn’t always go down so happily. Judy is forced into lowly parking meter duty and faces constant derogatory remarks from the other offices (all of whom are predatory animals rather than prey) who believe rabbits and other prey to be too timid to for such a career. After her Chief (Idris Elba) threatens to take her job unless she successfully locates a missing otter, she teams up with a sly, conniving fox named Nick (Jason Bateman) whom she has her own biases against (her parents taught her never to trust his species).
As Judy and Nick search go about their search, the movie quickly reveals opens up into a full-on buddy cop comedy, providing light-hearted banter and a well-paced, well-balanced flow of action and mystery. The movie abounds with references to the crime genre, from the very obvious (a full-on parody of The Godfather’s Don) to small easter eggs (A brief but hilarious Breaking Bad moment), but the work that Zootopia most resembles is neither of those iconic epics but rather the hilarious 1982 buddy-cop movie 48 Hrs. That classic (if palpably outdated) film dealt with the racial tensions of the time through the pairing of Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, the latter of which faces constant racism from inside and outside his police force. It’s likely no coincidence that Judy and Nick are given 48 hours to solve their case.
Not only is subbing in human characters with cuddly animals a great way to make that message kid-friendly, it also keeps everything non-specific, and thus universal across any race, culture or religion. There are no direct real-world equivalencies made, so trying to find a clear ‘rabbits = African Americans’, ‘foxes = Hisapnics’ or similar analogues is a fools’ errand bound to distract rather than immerse audiences in the world Disney has painstakingly crafted. What the lack of easy racial analogies means is that anyone can see themselves in this movie regardless of background, in a way that a film with real human actors (who each have to belong to some ethnicity, nationality, etc.) could never provide. For an animated movie to so blatantly tackle racism is perhaps no big surprise at this point in Disney’s progressive push, but just how deep, complex and relevant (evoking such fraught terminology as “predators” with actual predatory animals) the film decides to go with its metaphor is a revelation. Certainly, nobody can accuse Disney of taking the easy route.
The talking animal shtick was played out a long time ago, especially during Disney’s dark ages between ’99 and ’08, which brought us such grotesqueries as Home on the Range and Chicken Little. With Zootopia, Disney has regained a firm grasp on what makes anthropomorphization such a mainstay in animation – not to sell cute merchandise but so we can see ourselves, our flaws, and our entire contemporary society from a detached yet familiar position. Luckily for Disney, the movie gets to have its cake and eat it too: the animals are still incredibly cute and will sell so, so many toys. Throw all the world’s Baymax dolls out the window and replace them with – well, just about any character in this movie, and Disney’s got another money-flood on their hands, at least until Moana hits.
The unique mammalian world also provides a stream of animal-based visual gags and puns, though this is where the movie doesn’t fully live up to its potential. When the it’s funny, it’s incredibly funny. The most hilarious scene in the movie is one that everybody on Earth has seen already, revolving around DMV-worker sloths. Yet there’s never a top-shelf animal joke able to match that level of comedy perfection, and honestly, it doesn’t seem like they even tried to. Having a supposed bad guy named ‘Mr. Big’ turn out to be a tiny mouse (spoiled in the trailer, not by me), or puns like ‘pawpsicles’, ‘Zoober’ and ‘Zoogle’ are just a few of the easy-target jokes the script throws out at a rather calculated pace. Maybe I’m just spoiled by the bountiful treasure trove of award-worthy animal jokes (if only there was an award ceremony for those) in Bojack Horseman.
By 2016, it no longer seems fair or logical to compare Disney Animation Studio’s current output to those movies from the ’89-’99 Renaissance. I think we can all agree that was a long time ago, and we’re never going back. Though the studio has changed drastically since the days of The Lion King and Mulan, it’s safe to say they have held on to the things that truly matter. In fact, these movies have never mattered more. Everyone needs to see Zootopia at least once. Disney has transcended delivering good, clean messages for kids and started exploring tougher truths and higher levels of thinking than most movies made for adults. In this way, the legendary studio (and the animation medium as a whole) is evolving along with our collective consciousness, enriching even more quickly than it can entertain.
Score: 3.5 out of 5