‘Zootopia’: Disney animated film uniquely delights… and instructs

Disney Studios' animated feature "Zootopia" shows you really can be whatever you want to be. Maybe. Because the real world doesn’t always work that way.

Judy and Nick (Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman) are in for a slow roll at the DMV. (Still from PR trailer for Disney Studios' new animated film, "Zootopia")

WASHINGTON, March 27, 2016 – Welcome to Zootopia, a city where every animal has its place. Regardless of species, animals can be whatever they want to be here and pursue the path they decide is most right for them, rather than being forced to follow the dictates and prejudices of others. In short, all young animals can grow up to become their own best selves and to live in peace and harmony.

From the very beginning of Disney Studios’ new 3-D computer-animated film, “Zootopia,” we quickly figure out that the aforementioned pleasant fantasy is the façade unwittingly self-promoted by the spunky young rabbit Judy Hops (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) as she tries to make a life in the big city as the metropolis’ very first-ever bunny cop.

Judy is one of those Polyanna-esque idealists driven by an innocent yet almost laughable optimism that shines through from this intriguing film’s opening moments where, as an elementary school student, she refuses to let her simple, moral, Flyover Country-style upbringing deter her from her dreams as she takes on the Big City.

As the central character in “Zootopia,” Judy is a pretty traditional character in an in a story line that’s accessible to all ages but possesses a touch of adult edginess. She’s a plucky underdog but perhaps overly competent to the point where she doesn’t feel like a token hire in the real world, although she really is. The following trailer gives you a flavor of what’s going on.

Judy is the type of animated character that reinforces every positive platitude that’s pitched to children at an early age: always be optimistic, always persevere, always keep your eyes on the prize and your dream will inevitably be awarded. If you work hard, of course. As Judy Hops, Ginnifer Goodwin’s happy, chirpy voice is perfectly calibrated to project her character’s relentless cheerfulness.

But, while Goodwin’s nearly letter-perfect portrayal of this film’s central character, it wouldn’t be enough to carry this movie were it not for its phenomenal, largely first-tier supporting cast as well as this animated film’s remarkable success in “world building” early on. Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, “Zootopia” is remarkably detailed and subtle for a “family film,” because the world that’s being portrayed genuinely feels like the one every animal on screen is really living in.

Building a convincing world is a key to “Zootopia’s” success

In fantasy and science fiction – which are the genres into which “Zootopia” most comfortably fits – effective world building is an absolute necessity to shake audiences out of their very natural skepticism. If a film’s creators can quickly make the audience feel as if they’re experiencing something that’s plausible, believable and virtually real, they’ll accept the premise and enter that world, which makes their ride from the opening shot to the final credits seem as if it were real or at least very close to real.

One of the biggest mistakes made in this type of film is that the filmmakers often provide lifeless and uninteresting backgrounds or backdrops for the characters and action, creating the impression—often unconscious—that what’s going on isn’t real and is unfolding without context. But “Zootopia” comes through magnificently on this count. There’s a lot going on all around the characters and central action, and if you don’t look about early and often, you’ll miss it, even though you sense that it’s there.

In “Zootopia,” the city itself actually feels like a living organism. The animators throw in one lush detail after the next to reinforce that when Judy Hop and her reluctant fox buddy, Nick Wilde (artfully voiced by Jason Bateman), are pursuing this film’s genuinely complicated detective plotline through each colorfully different section of their incredibly diverse city. In doing so, the audience goes along with them, always feeling as if Judy and Nick are affecting the lives of citizens that have nothing to do with them, while reinforcing the notion that each area of the vast city really does have its own personality.

The city is populated by large cast of animals of all shapes, sizes and species. Better yet, seeing one anthropomorphic elephant behaves, for example, doesn’t mean that all the others will behave exactly the same. Yes, elephants in general do elephant-like things, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to do exactly the same thing as the first elephant we see. Each individual elephant has its own distinctive personality.

In addition to individuality within species, each animal’s attitude and body type has an influence as well. The film’s intriguing supporting case includes Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), an officious, hulking buffalo; mayor Leonard Lionheart (J.K. Simmons), a leonine boss typified by his political sleaziness; Dawn Bellweather (Jenny Slate), Lionheart’s apparently unimposing lamb-deputy mayor; overweight, affable but bumbling cheetah Officer Benjamin Clawhauser (Nate Torrence) who lives only for doughnuts and treats; and pop star Gazelle (Shakira) as the exact opposite body type of the real-life pop star who gives her voice.

A spoonful of sugar helps the social message go down

By prominently featuring so many individualistic characters, “Zootopia” feels real making both character and story development unfold almost effortlessly. Because of this, the film possesses consequence in terms of the overarching narrative as well as its social subtext.

Notably, this beautifully animated film – an effort of the Disney Studios animators and storytellers, not Pixar – is a lot weightier thematically than it might initially seem.

Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) tells his new officer-token bunny Judy Hopp-she's going to be a meter maid. (Screen grab from trailer for Disney Studios' "Zootopia."
Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) tells his new officer-token bunny Judy Hops – she’s going to be a meter maid. (Screen grab from trailer for Disney Studios’ “Zootopia.”

The film’s primary plot is simple enough. It unfolds as a crime procedural, in which newly-appointed but underemployed officer Judy Hops – demeaningly assigned as a meter maid – enlists the help of professional con-man (and fox) Nick Wilde to help solve a case of why certain animals are going “savage,” in direct contradiction of Zootopia’s utopian ideal where all predators and prey alike have learned to get along together. Why is this happening? Without authorization, Judy decides to get to the bottom of it—a neat twist on the Hollywood tradition of heroic rogue cops.

It’s also something that gruff, tradition-bound Chief Bogo doesn’t want to deal with. He’s clearly been forced to hire her—probably due to a Zootopian “affirmative action” dictate. But, as this green, rookie cop is also a bunny – he reflexively decides she’s not up to real police work like investigating serious crime. That’s a big first step this movie takes as it opens the tent-flaps into contemporary social themes that are still clearly current in 2016.

“Zootopia’s” primary concern actually seems to be engaging in a discussion of prejudice in our own world, by creating a “safe space” where that discussion can actually take place. Its first step is presenting Judy as a bunny who wants to be a cop. Within the context of the film, this is a career path everyone she knows, including her own very nice but protective parents, either questions or outright ridicules.

As Judy pursues her dream, she’s immediately confronted with further roadblocks and is almost dismissed by her superiors at the outset. All the while, she faces any number of readily recognizable slurs about “bunnies” as she simply tries to do the job for which she was exhaustively trained.

She’s not the only character to face prejudice throughout the movie. One of the most impressive things about “Zootopia” is that nearly every character, both good and bad, tends to harbor very specific biases against other characters and species, often reflexively and at times without even realizing it. It’s a vast tapestry of zoo-manity, and the film’s main plot exposes just how deep these underlying prejudices go. No one, it seems, is immune to such bias, even if it’s transmitted by good people who don’t even know they’re doing it.

Predators and prey. A real life story?

With remarkable clarity, “Zootopia” illustrates what a tricky subject discrimination really is on a most basic level. Even characters such as our seemingly un-biased bunny heroine—who makes it a priority to be as open-minded and welcoming of others’ differences and feelings as she can—will still come up short in the bias department.

But more positively, the film articulates the message that it’s much more important that each character engage his or her built-in demons, not allowing them to define the true self, or how one interacts with others who have done nothing to justify those underlying prejudices that exist solely within one’s self. That’s pretty heady stuff for a film like “Zootopia.” It’s a film that graciously presents the discussions we should have been having 50 years ago while entertaining at the same time.

The construct isn’t always perfect, however. The first issue is how the main crux is framed as “predator” vs. “prey.” The film actually makes a case that “predators” like lions, foxes, panthers, once did and still can cause damage and death to smaller animals even though in Zootopia, those actions are supposedly part of ancient history. Yet there is still a residual fear of the “other.” This is an actual threat that is always present to various citizens of Zootopia. As lamb and deputy mayor Dawn Bellweather points out, the population of this sprawling city is still 90% prey and 10% predator.

This puts the power dynamics of this film all over the place. The underlying and perhaps unintentional message here is that there’s still potential for the majority population to be in danger from an aggressive minority. This puts the film unintentionally at odds with itself, since in its context, “predators” can be a danger not just to the animals they preyed upon generations ago, but also to anything they have physical power over, which translates to systemic power within society. This tends to undercut, however subtly, the film’s central premise, even though unintentionally.

An interesting and logical lesson in genuine “tolerance”

But “Zootopia” does promote the virtue of genuine tolerance quite strongly at its conclusion. But it also makes an equally strong point about real law and order, the kind that should keep sleazy characters like Leonard Lionheart in their place. While it’s played for laughs toward the end of the film, this idea is still present, namely that that it’s a subtly imposed order that’s keeping the entire community of animals from being “savaged,” not necessarily because they’ve evolved past it, but because social harmony is seen as the best way to live and prosper.

Admirably, the creators of “Zootopia” have taken on a timely and important social theme, treating it with consideration and nuance. That’s a pretty big deal in and of itself. If they inadvertently display a few blind spots, that scarcely does damage either their intent or their effort.

Briskly paced, wonderfully animated, and downright funny throughout, “Zootopia” is not only entertaining. It opens up in a non-threatening way an opportunity for those who see it to engage later in productive discussions about what it all means. Even better, it’s all made easier because it wisely approaches its touchy central thesis plainly, without muddled doublespeak or phony virtue-signaling. That’s what makes “Zootopia” a success even when it stumbles.

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