While most moviegoers tend to arrive a bit late because they don’t particularly mind missing the trailers, alas I’m too punctual to avoid arriving early enough to see every single preview. My jaunt to see Zootopia was no exception. But after the expected trailers for The Secret Life of Pets and Jungle Book (clearly if you’re seeing Zootopia you must also be interested in every other movie featuring talking computer-animated animals), the all too familiar Scrat from Ice Age appeared on the screen. My immediate reaction: “Oh no! Is this a joke? They aren’t making another one of those are they?” What was once a good kids’ movie has now been marred by increasingly hackneyed sequels, to the point where I am revolted by the mere thought of the franchise. I can only hope this will not be the fate of Zootopia, a fate which would be all the more tragic given that Zootopia is a far, far better film than even the first Ice Age.
In Zootopia’s wildly imaginative world, predators and prey have evolved beyond their once violent relationships, and—after creating a modern society very much like our own—now live in seemingly perfect harmony. The pinnacle of this society is the city of Zootopia where, at least according to Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons), “anyone can be anything.” This city is complete with skyscrapers, a police force, and even its own pop-singer Gazelle (who sadly isn’t voiced by Adele). But Zootopia is no more utopian than any city in the real world.. Though no one is preyed upon by predators, many animals still fall prey to disarming stereotypes. Few animals know this better than the story’s protagonist, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who’s always dreamed of being a police officer in Zootopia. She’s endured a lifetime of being told that bunnies just don’t become police officers. Even her parents told her she’d never succeed and that they themselves “gave up on [their] dreams and settled!”
But Judy persevered, and now, she has finally secured a job as a police officer in Zootopia. The head of the police department, the burly buffalo Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), has little faith in Judy’s abilities, telling her, “Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true. So let it go.” While he eventually agrees to give her a real assignment, he does so only if she agrees to resign if she doesn’t solve the case within 48 hours. So the pressure is on for Officer Judy Hopps to find Emmitt Otterton, one of 14 predators who have mysteriously gone missing, before her limited time runs out. To do so, she will need the help of an unlikely ally, the clever conman (or should I say con-fox?) Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).
To paraphrase Chief Bogo, this movie isn’t some cartoon musical where the characters sing a little song and all their dreams magically come true (yeah, I’m looking at you Cinderella). The movie’s message is a lot more complicated than the typical good vs. evil and friendship pablum featured in a lot of Disney movies. This is a film about confronting biases, about overcoming stereotypes, embracing diversity, and perhaps more poignantly (though I can’t explain why without giving too much away), about the danger of leaders who use fear to gain power and control.
The movie also tells an unpredictable and captivating detective story; one which could stand on its own without all the important themes the filmmakers have woven through it. In other words, the story isn’t contrived in order to fit or convey these contemporary messages. On top of all that, it’s also pretty funny. And while most of the jokes are simply hilarious, others are quite meaningful. For instance, when Judy first arrives at the Zootopia police department, the chubby, donut-gobbling, cheetah desk clerk Clawhauser (Nate Torrence) excitedly greets her: “O. M. Goodness, they really did hire a bunny. Ho-whop! I gotta tell you, you’re even cuter than I thought you’d be.” Judy responds “Ooh, ah, you probably didn’t know, but a bunny can call another bunny ‘cute’, but when other animals do it, that’s a little…” While we laugh, we also get the message: even stereotypes for positive traits can be offensive and can be forms of discrimination.
While there’re plenty of jokes to make the kids cackle, Zootopia also has many references that will amuse the parents in the audience. The best is undoubtedly an extended hilarious and artful Godfather reference which you may have glimpsed if you watched the trailers, but is much longer and more detailed in the film. Having just seen The Godfather for the first time a few months ago, I found this allusion both skillful and hysterical. Importantly, it advances the plot, so it won’t seem like a boring aside to children unfamiliar with the significantly less kid-friendly Mafioso classic.
Moreover, one of the most unusual virtues of Zootopia is its strong female leading character. She perseveres through discouragement and discrimination to achieve a career (not some handsome prince) she’s dreamed of since she was a child. In fact, there isn’t the slightest hint of romance in the film. This is refreshing change from the myriad female leads in animated Disney movies whose dreams are too often focused on a man, or who at least seem to need the love of a man to achieve their dreams and be truly happy.
Talented voice acting and animation, on par with many Pixar films, bring this crime comedy to life. The allegory of discrimination is realistic enough to remind us of specific instances of bigotry in modern society, but general enough to be applied to any group who’s endured such treatment. Similarly, the portrayal of leaders who use fear to gain support and to manipulate the populace makes no specific references to any current presidential candidates, though such comparisons could certainly be made. Thus, the messages Zootopia conveys are both timely and timeless. Quite the feat for an animated kids’ movie about talking animals.
Grade: A Witty, inventive, and poignant; Zootopia’s merits and potential audience are as diverse as the plethora of animals it portrays. Just short of iconic.
Rating: PG For themes that might make your children think about society and the kind of violence you’d expect in a criminal investigation conducted by a cartoon bunny