Zootopia is a solidly made crowd-pleaser and one of Disney’s freshest and most heartfelt in years, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights that it’s aiming for.
The challenge with making tentpole animated films seems to be how to incorporate elements that will appeal to children as well as to adults, creating an end product with universal appeal. There are many permutations to this approach. In Zootopia’s case, while there are elements that appeal to children, the film nonetheless feels like it was made primarily for adults.
There are all the human-like animals, of course, from the cute and cuddly to the ferocious-looking and magestic, and that sheer visual spectacle of a futuristic, colorful city populated by them is sure to be a sensory delight to taxonomically-inclined children. But at the same time, Zootopia has that rare distinction, usually achieved only by the better Pixar films, of daring to interrogate its cartoonish premise on a deeper thematic and psychosocial level.
Zootopia – the setting – feels authentic, a location with real presence and heart. From the five wildly different biomes that make it up, to its utopian aesthetic and metropolitan verticality, there seems to be real care being put into thinking how a city made up of a thousand species of animal might function. (I do have a question though – does that mean all the animals are vegetarian? Even the predators?)
Zootopia is a society comprising predator and prey, and the two races have reason to distrust each other. While animal-kind has “evolved” to live in relative harmony with each other, insuperable biological differences remain, that isolate predator from prey. Above that, the biological differences between animals of the same kind also create a kind of division of labor and expectations around what animals are best suited for what jobs, a fact that the protagonist bunny Judy Hopps is made painfully aware of when her dismissive superiors consign her to meter maid duty on her first day on the job as a Zootopia Police Department officer.
There is a tension between the easy solution of keeping every animal in their biologically-mandated place and instituting inclusionary measures to ensure that animals can be whatever they want to be. Although Zootopia’s creed leans towards the latter, it is no utopian caricature. It is still a place where mostly well-meaning people constantly struggle to figure out how to live in a society that tries, but often fails, to be just and inclusive. That willingness to broach those themes elevates Zootopia’s premise from kid-friendly schtick to somewhat-intelligent commentary.
Zootopia excels in other respects, too. The writing for this film is mostly solid and often hysterical. The ironically-named arctic shrew mafia boss, Mr Big, is a hilarious parody of Godfather, and the naturalist colony where everyone is naked is a humorous nod to the cartoon absurdity of a film where animals walk around wearing clothes. Our bubbly protagonist, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), is exuberant and enthusiastic but also smart and relatable, and she has great chemistry with her would-be partner, small-time con-fox Nick.
The thing that Zootopia isn’t so good at is disassociating itself from some of the more common bad habits endemic to Disney animated films. While the setting and themes of Zootopia are meaningful and original, the actual plot isn’t quite as inspired. Zootopia’s narrative starts out great in the first half, when Judy and Nick team up to solve a missing mammals case. It’s a compelling, smartly-paced police procedural with most of the funny bits. But then, in the second half, the plot falls apart as the filmmakers write themselves into awkward plot contrivances in order to hit a bullet-point list of some of the tireder Disney tropes – the unwitting friendship-betrayal, the nadir-of-protagonist scenes, the scene where the protagonist figures things out, and the whole unexpected villain shlock.
There is also that annoying tendency in animated film to make everything just work out for everybody through fortuitous coincidence and foreshadowing. Judy is saved from being iced by the mafia because she happened to save the don’s daughter earlier that day. Judy happens to be chasing a criminal that was carrying a package that happened to foreshadow the big plot reveal later on in the film. I get it. It’s necessary to make the film understandable to children by linking everything to each other. But it makes for a truncated, too-neat film, with everything neatly packaged, a contrived fable about acceptance and inclusivity rather than something with more complexity and verisimilitude. It’s a shame, because the setting of Zootopia had a much more promise.
Funnily enough, there are also some jokes, that rather hypocritically, try to be funny by relying on stereotypes about those animals, which somewhat goes against the message of “being all you can be” that the film spends its entire length promulgating. The worst joke in the film (and one that nearly put me off watching it) was the whole sequence with the sloths at the DMV, which suffered both from cheap laughs at the sloth stereotype, as well as being terribly paced and (you guessed it) far too drawn out.
But I do think Zootopia is one of the few Disney properties with actual promise as a franchise. The city of Zootopia is a fertile playground to spin more stories about this eclectic land of cohabitating mammals, and I actually do hope that they come up with richer stories to populate that universe – tell us where all the reptiles went, maybe?
I give this film: 4 out of 5 carrot recorders