Cute can only get you so far, but when it comes to animated films for kiddos, cute will take you awfully far. In Disney’s latest animated film Zootopia they are relying adorable animals to sneak in some life lessons, and they nearly pull it off too.
Zootopia is the titular city where Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) wants to make her dreams come true. Ever since she was a teeny kit, she has dreamed of being the first rabbit police officer. The bullies in her small farm town told her that there is no way she can ever make it happen, but she works hard and dedicates herself, and just as soon as her training montage is done she has been given a position on the Zootopia police force. After all, Zootopia is “Where anyone can be anything!”
Arriving in the city Judy has a big naïve heart and cannot wait to thwart as many bad guys as she can gets her paws on. Unfortunately for her the police chief (Idris Elba) still has his doubts about a rabbit officer and keeps her relegated to parking duty. Judy sways emotionally between wanting to be the best darn parking attendant there ever was and feeling beaten down by the giant unwelcoming city. That is, until she happens upon a fox con artist, Nick (Jason Bateman), and a possibly interconnected web of coincidences and disappearances.
Zootopia has its heart in the right place. The film is actively trying to push its own admirable social agenda, but it does so in a less than subtle way. One of the major issues with the decidedly non-utopian city is the divide between predators and other animals. When several animals go missing, it does not escape anyone’s view that they are all genetically hunters. Though the animals of Zootopia all claim to think that those predatory genes were left long ago on the evolutionary timeline, they are still all very well aware of the categorical divide. We can see that the discrimination the predators face can be compared to our country’s ongoing (and ludicrously current) racial issues, but the danger there is in comparing racial minorities with actual predators. Pushing the metaphor just a hair (or hare, in Judy’s case) shows how problematic this over simplification truly is.
Beyond the superficial layer of cultural politics, there are a good number of inside jokes and homages in Zootopia. With an extended Godfather reference, and a kind of clever Breaking Bad scene it’s clear that the filmmakers wanted to have a ball putting these adorable animals in surprising situations. For the most part the film pays its respects to greater films and television with a light tone, and thankfully avoids exposing the children in the audience to the greater horrors of organized crime or methamphetamine cooking.
The animation artistry in the film is quite uneven. While the city of Zootopia looks layered and bustling, not every corner of the frame gets the same level of attention. When Judy first arrives to the city by train, her initial approach is filled with bland hills and lackluster skies. Perhaps it was an intentional contrast included by the animators, but it made for an underwhelming trip. After we enter the city, however, the various neighborhoods and ecological zones are all fairly well attended to. It is clear that a good dose of invention and imagination went into the creation of the city, I just wish that the same level of detail had extended to the entirety of the film.
With all of the cinematic references to films well beyond most children’s oeuvres, and life lessons that have not been learned by many American voters, I am left wondering who Zootopia was made for. Kids will love to watch the cute animals walking upright and getting parking tickets, but their understanding of the joke where only sloths work at the DMV is superficial compared to the adults who have lived that hell. And discrimination is a toxic attitude that adults teach to children, and not an instinct to overcome. Adults teach human children racism, and in the world of Zootopia adults teach young bunnies that they cannot be policemen when they grow up; so who really needs to learn these lessons? Rather than creating a cohesive film that appeals to both old and young, we have somehow been handed a film created by and for adults, but that kids will probably enjoy too. Zootopia is by no means a miss, it just never fully settles into its own message or visual style.
Directors: Byron Howard & Rich Moore
Film Length: 109 minutes
Release Date: March 4, 2016
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures