***1/2 out of ****
for some thematic elements, rude humor, and action
Released: March 4, 2016
Runtime: 108 minutes
Director: Byron Howard, Rich Moore
Starring (the voices of): Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, J.K. Simmons, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk
That hashtag (while not used in the film) represents just one of the deftly paralleled social issues in Zootopia, the latest entry from Walt Disney Animation that continues the dynamic resurgence of this once-beleaguered – but now vital – legendary studio.
Before you start worrying that the end result may be too polemical or preachy (for kids or otherwise), well stop. Never heavy-handed and even warmly affirming, Zootopia teaches universal core values that all people share, never hammering home divisive politically-correct talking points. In fact, from racism to sexism, Zootopia enables viewers (and parents with kids) to talk about these issues on a human level rather than a partisan one, all while packaged in a fun, visually vibrant atmosphere – bursting with life in a widescreen scope that expands beyond the typical 16×9 rectangle ratio – and driven by an unsolved mystery.
What first appeared to be another tired anthropomorphic retread (its being dropped in early March rather than summer or the holidays actually nurtured skepticism), Zootopia transcends expectations in every regard. Not only is the execution of this standard “animals acting like humans” animation premise not lazy, it’s often inspired. Its humor is clever, cute, and witty, never propping itself up on pop culture references or manic, desperate antics. And you want to talk about world building? Zootopia has worlds within worlds. Most importantly, not only are characters richer and fuller than their stock archetypes, but that’s the point of the entire movie.
The script’s ingenuity is clear from the first scene. Dispensing with the typical expository narration, it opens on a grade school play that (similar to those elementary “First Thanksgiving” pilgrim dress-up skits) tells the story of how predators and prey learned to live together in peace and harmony. Right off the bat, the film makes a commitment to show us its world rather than explain it. Then, in a briefly scary (yet necessarily so) schoolyard bully scene, we’re shown just how much prejudices still exist.
At the center of it all is Judy Hopps (voiced by Once Upon A Time’s Ginnfer Goodwin, who seems destined to get an onslaught of character voice offers after this wonderfully alive and heartfelt performance). Hopps is a young and very determined bunny with dreams of becoming the first ever Rabbit police officer, despite the perceived limitations of her species and gender. It’s not an overstatement to say that Hopps joins The Force Awakens’ Rey as one of the best female role models of recent memory.
When the simultaneous disappearance of several mammals occurs, the underdog Hopps seeks to solve the mystery by joining forces with an unlikely ally: the con artist fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman, also perfectly cast), another animal whose life experience has been limited to society’s narrow-minded perceptions of what they deem to be his innate lack of character. As that mystery uncovers a conspiracy, Zootopia also uncovers the unconscious biases of even its heroes, of how they unintentionally reinforce bigotry by perceiving stereotypes as “facts”, as well as the institutionalized systemic bigotry of this so-called utopia.
We also see themes of Optimism vs. Pessimism, about looking for the best in people rather than assuming the worst, or even in the face of the worst. Of looking at stereotypes, recognizing how unfair they are, or to the extent they’re fair then acknowledging that they can be expressed as good just as easily as they can as bad. This resonates most powerfully in the clear “Predator” metaphor for racism toward African-Americans (especially when some predators inexplicably turn “savage”), but also in the dismissiveness of most animals toward Hopps, as well as the survivalist vagrant wiles of Nick. A “species” cliché need not be a pejorative. It can actually be a strength and a virtue.
What Inside Out did for human psychology, Zootopia does for social justice. This Disney offering isn’t quite as profound as its recent Oscar-winning Pixar cousin, nor does it pack as big of an emotional wallop, but it’s nevertheless impressive in how it distills complex (and important) realities about race, class, and gender into simply understood – and deeply felt – paradigms, while never diminishing the seriousness of those realities or getting up on a liberal soapbox. It shows us in poignant, not didactic, moments that while we may sincerely believe in the “anyone can be anything” ideal, we can all too easily limit people to just being what they already are.