When it comes to dealing with sensitive issues and discussions of race, gender or sexuality, Disney’s past is at best mildly cringe-inducing, and at worst is, well… we’ve all seen Dumbo. So when Zootropolis, which seemed to promise a standard Disney experience right down to the anthropomorphised talking animals living in harmony, began to take the form of a socially responsible teaching that warns against the collaborative downfall that comes from baseless stereotyping, I was completely blindsided in the best way possible. Zootropolis is a fable for the era of immigration debates, and it might shift a few cuddly toy rabbits in the process.
• Director: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush
• Exhibition: 2D/3D
• Rating: U
• Run Time: 108 mins
So it turns out that all those harmonious animal kingdoms we’ve visited in innumerable animated films aren’t all so harmonious after all. While in the evolved ecosystem in which the film takes place, predator and prey are no longer at each others throats so to speak, institutional discrimination is still prominent and species-profiling uncomfortably flagrant. Our first indication of this is through our heroine, the adorably peppy rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin). She had a run in with a particularly nasty fox in her earlier years, and now carries the vulpine equivalent of pepper spray, despite insisting to her sceptical, small-town parents that their fears are baseless. But she in turn has her own biases to prove wrong. Judy’s dream is to leave her family, run a carrot farm, and join the police force in the exuberant and uproarious Zootropolis, a place in which all manner of animals live side by side and ‘anyone can be anything’, apparently.
The problem is that the police force is an institution reserved for only the most ferocious and intimidating of mammals, and the stern buffalo police chief (Idris Elba) isn’t too keen on having her in their ranks. The fact that Judy is so idealistic about the hurdles she has to overcome, yet in denial about her own deep-set attitudes is a strikingly sharp comment for such a cuddly picture and demands a good deal of audience self reflection. Soon enough however, a ‘missing mammals’ case provides Judy with the risky opportunity to secure her place on the force she desperately craves approval from, along with coerced help from cynical con-artist fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). The stage is set for ignorance to be enlightened, and a city to be saved from its lurking tensions. It’s a political, spirited, buddy–cop flavoured fare for all ages that goes far beyond the superficial. The cliched notes it hits along the way are a little predictable, but pragmatically, it could of been far worse and a lot more unbearably saccharine.
It is deep, but it’s also light-footed, entertaining, and genuinely funny, managing to keep the laughs for kids and older audiences consistent and well matched. Parents will be able to smirk at the commentary found in queues of suited lemmings filing in and out of tower buildings on the daily grind, but then so will kids, because who doesn’t find lemmings in suits great? The subtext doesn’t feel too preachy though, and breezy inclusions of of modern technology like smartphones that seamlessly exist and occasionally move the narrative forward without any flourishes or ‘oh my god technology is corrupting the modern age’ nonsense went a surprising distance to help make the film feel effortlessly contemporary. So there are all the positives of modern living as well as the drawbacks. This is a world in which incriminating confessions can be recorded on your phone, and ‘go back to the jungle’ is a phrase just as insulting as it would be in real life. You can ‘be anything you want to be’, but there are a lot of people that won’t want you to, simply because of who you are.
Zootropolis itself provides an astoundingly enthralling backdrop for the swift and succinct allegories, split into different microclimate sections. There are jungles, tundra, deserts and all the visual gags and intertextual winks and nudges you could want (or bear; a prolonged Godfather reference drags on a bit). It’s the kind of setting you could guarantee has endless layers of treats for the eagle eyed and demands repeat viewings. It has layer upon layer of meticulous detail, and the movement, textures and vocals of the characters are so full of personality and individualism each one is a masterclass in intuitive character design. Talking animals are nothing new, but it certainly feels fresh; you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking Pixar had a hand in all the visual inventiveness and sincerity of the central message.
However, for such a fresh and feisty film, the enemies-to-good-friends while chasing a conspiracy to the top trope feels a little stale. Even if it suits the exploration of the predator/prey stereotype dichotomy, it’s a shame such a progressive film doesn’t excel in all areas. And the inevitable happy ending that seemingly undoes eons of engrained nature-over-nurture thinking in one swoop seems a little easily come by. Luckily though, Judy and Nick are such a likeable and watchable pair, it’s pretty easy to forgive and forget plot shortcomings.
But all parts of the film, good and bad, work towards the noble aim of creating an impressively capable and conscious morality tale that will hopefully teach a younger generation to question their beliefs and influences, a train of thought that will certainly become ever more prominent in years to come. I’m not saying Disney has suddenly had it’s slate wiped and can walk away with its conscious clean, or that social justice uprisings will breakout worldwide, but it was a surprisingly responsible risk to charge a film with such a clear and potentially water-stirring message, so it’s a start.