Walt Disney Studios has another winner in Zootopia. I don’t know if it will withstand the test of time, but this movie is great for the current times as it depicts a story about the different dangers of prejudice and overcoming it on several levels.
Zootopia is an anthropomorphic animal metropolis where various animals live and thrive together. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a bright-eyed and bushy tailed, country rabbit who has always dreamed of moving to the city and joining the police force. That’s a dream that appears too big to Judy’s friends and family and to most of society. That’s mostly because no one can see a bunny holding their own against larger and more predatory animals who would’ve eaten her kind in the past. Thanks to an animal affirmative action program, Judy is able to get into the police academy and through hard work and determination, she makes it to Zootopia as an officer. However, her first day doesn’t go as she’d hoped. She’s assigned to be a meter maid by a captain that doesn’t want her to be there. Judy stirs up more trouble for herself when she creates havoc while chasing a weasel through the city. Just as the captain’s about to fire her, the assistant mayor overhears her volunteer to take on the case of a missing otter and says it would be great PR for the department. Much to his chagrin, the captain relents and gives Hopps two days to solve the case (which the other officers hadn’t been able to solve yet).
With little assistance from the department, Hopps turns to Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). Wilde is a con-artist fox who scammed Hopps her first day on the job. She turns the tables on him and threatens to bring him in for tax evasion if he doesn’t help her. The two set off to uncover the mystery of the missing otter and, after a brief run-in with the mob, discover a bigger scandal. The otter was just one of several missing animals who had gone “savage” (I guess disney decided that saying “rabid” wouldn’t work for some reason) and attacked people before being whisked away by a pack of wolves with a van. It turns out that the savage animals were being kept by the mayor who was trying to figure out why only predators seemed to be going savage. The mayor was afraid that the public finding out about this could lead to a distrust of predators and, ultimately, cost him his position. Hopps and Wilde bust the case open and the mayor is arrested. In the aftermath of the case, Hopps has a press conference where she unwittingly makes it sound like predators are the only ones who could go savage, which the media takes to mean that they pose a danger to the public. Wilde (obviously a predator), had been hurt as a child by predator prejudice and walks away from Hopps, who had hoped that he’d go to the academy and become her partner.
Hopps comments lead to state of civil unrest in Zootopia with some predators continuing to go savage and the public growing to distrust predators. Realizing that her statements caused a huge rift in the population of Zootopia, Hopps resigns from the force and moves back to the country. While she’s there, a conversation with an old bully of hers leads her to realize that there’s a specific reason that the predators are turning savage and that it’s not just because they’re predators. She races back to the city and apologizes to Wilde and asks him for help in getting to the bottom of things. Together, they set out to find the real reason that the predators have been going savage and expose it to the public. I know that’s a vague description at the end, but I’m trying really hard to avoid spoilers for this one.
At this point, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Disney is able to pull off a movie like this. This is the kind of thing that’s in their wheelhouse. A story with anthropomorphic animals, kid-friendly music and visuals, and a cast stacked full of known actors and voice acting talent. Seriously, there’s so many times in this movie that I found myself going, “wait is that [insert actor name]” and I was still surprised when I looked at the IMDB page to see the number of actors that I recognized in this movie. Even the ones I didn’t recognize seemed to have a wealth of voice acting experience. The movie also looked great. Having the city of Zootopia contain several different ecosystems, allowed the visual team to show off some distinctly different environments and effects. My personal favorite was the rainforest that they constructed. The movie also managed to be above average with it’s comedy, which relied more on written jokes and sight gags than it did on referential humor (the one breaking bad reference they made fell completely flat in my theater). Many of the characters, Mr and Mrs. Hopps come to mind, where written in a way that made the jokes flow smoothly and really hit home. It also didn’t hurt that many of the characters were fun/adorable. For example, I thought I was gonna hate Flash the sloth, but I loved that character and his bit.
Even with all those good things going on, my big take away was what this movie was about. It was a not so subtle social commentary on prejudice. In the movie, the prejudices are all based around the concept of species that are traditionally predators versus prey. Even thought the movie only operates on that one premise, it applies it to different situations that have real life analogs so easily identifiable that it almost hurts because it makes you realize how terrible people can be.
The example that really hit me in the gut was watching a young Nick Wilde want nothing more than to fit in as a kid, only to get his little heart broken when the other kids taunted and muzzled him when he thought he was joining the scouts. I think that would trigger a memory in most people who were made to feel different somehow when they were a kid. I actually heard a trembling adult, female voice in the theater whisper out “That’s so ****ing sad” when this happened.
I thought Mr. and Mrs. Hopps were a really insightful depiction of how some people live with prejudices whether they be racial, social or otherwise. They told Judy to dream big but when she dreamed too big for their comfort, they told her to pull it back. One because they realized that it was outside of what society would allow but also because they realized that it would be dangerous for their daughter to go against what society (and even nature) had put into place. The real life parallels abound in the scenes with the parents.
Another one that hurt a little to watch was what happened to the predators when the public became afraid of them. There was the one scene with the mother scooting her child away from a predator when they were riding on the subway together. There’s lots of people who can identify with the little twinge of hurt you feel when other people perceive you as being dangerous just based on how you look. That being said, I did have the thought of, “That thing can eat you, you probably should’ve been afraid of it before this news came out”. Maybe that makes me a bad person, I’m not sure.
Easily the closest thing to a political statement came when the film’s main villain (still not spoiling it) admits to Hopps that her plan is to use fear to manipulate the population. It’s stated that “fear always works” which is a statement that’s sadly been proven very true, especially in today’s political climate. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get on a political soapbox here. Probably for the same reason that the movie just touched on this point without really delving too deeply into it.
As an adult, I thought that this movie did a great job at balancing their commentary with creating a movie that was still fun and entertaining. I definitely didn’t go into the theater expecting to see a movie about prejudice and I left it being surprised at how well done the movie was given what it was about. I would’ve loved to know how children in the audience were processing this. Because, if they were able to get even some of the ideas that the movie was putting out, this movie could become one of those rare stories that transcends itself and becomes ingrained as one of those Disney children’s movie that could last through generations.
- Poignant social commentary (at least for 2016)
- Manages to approach the subject of prejudice from many different angles
- Good execution of the multi-level humor that these kinds of movies call for
- The social commentary could be considered heavy handed by some