Dear parents: It is March of 2016, and the current frontrunner for the Republican party’s presidential nomination is a bloviating, dissembling narcissist with a talent for fomenting xenophobia. Please take your kids to see Zootopia. Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé Knowles have both been accused of racism for performing songs that celebrate and solemnize black experiences on national television. Please take your kids to see Zootopia. Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony undercut its own entreatments for inclusion with tone-deaf ethnic jokes plus blatant pandering. Please take your kids to see Zootopia.
It says a lot about the state of America’s cultural dialogues on acceptance and discrimination that a Disney movie feels this urgent, but maybe a movie about animals living under the impression of harmony is a long-term solution for our short-term failures. Then again, we’re talking about a cartoon where TV’s Snow White teams up with Michael Bluth in a sort-of riff on 48 Hours that expands to include references to The Godfather and Breaking Bad. Suggesting that Zootopia packs enough meaningful education on the insidiousness of bigotry to cleanse all traces of prejudices from our future generations puts too much pressure on the film. You need more than cuteness wrapped around a social message to affect that kind of change.
So what, though? Zootopia is good, bordering on great. Better than that, it’s smart in the way it approaches race relations, if unsophisticated and childish. But there are worse things a children’s movie can be than childish, and in Zootopia that word sheds its pejorative implications and instead feels befitting in its innocence. The story takes place in the sprawling zoological metropolis of the title, a place where beasts of all makes and models—large and small, meek and ferocious—somehow manage to coexist in an approximation of civilized society. You may rightly wonder why or how predators ever managed to evolve beyond their primal need to hunt, kill and eat lesser animals, but you would be missing the point. This is the driving theme of the entire movie: that we need not be defined by what we look like or by the expectations of others. We are who we choose to be. Anyone can be anything.
Take, for example, Zootopia’s plucky protagonist, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin). From the days of her youth she is bound and determined to grow up to be a cop, against the wishes of her anxious parents (Don Lake and Bonnie Hunt) and in utmost defiance of her schoolyard bully’s taunts. But grow up to be a cop she does, and off to Zootopia she goes to serve its citizens alongside a law enforcement body comprised of hippos and elephants, rhinoceri and cheetahs, Cape buffaloes and, well, pretty much any other kind of critter you can imagine. In contrast to Judy, there’s Nick (Jason Bateman), a streetwise fox with an airtight hustling game that’d put Irving Rosenfeld to shame. Nick doesn’t care what other people think of him, and so he’s totally fine with shouldering the burden of stereotyping.
Most of the film’s dramatic tension hinges on their unlikely team-up. Judy is given meter maid duty by her superior, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), who, like everyone else, can’t take a fluffy little bunny rabbit seriously as a police officer. But she chances her way into the department’s major ongoing investigation of the mysterious disappearances of 14 of Zootopia’s citizens, and bereft of aid from her compatriots in the Zootopia Police Department, she must call on Nick to help her crack the case. It’s a classic odd couple pairing combined with a classic “fish out of water” narrative, though in light of the film’s anthropomorphic cast, the absence of any literal fish out of water is a mild disappointment.
Zootopia really gets going once Judy and Nick start on their neo-noir buddy cop caper, but the film’s initial setup and continuous worldbuilding are pleasurable on their own merits. Judy’s arrival within the city is one marked by pure wonder: As she stares up, sideways, and all around as she travels through one geologically themed district after another—Tundratown, Sahara Square—we share in her rapture. This is a beautifully animated film marked by a vibrant palette and by an impressive nuance in its characters’ expressive ranges. When Nick recalls the very real, very ugly childhood incident that solidified his philosophy of ambivalence, we see the memory play in full across his face; Judy’s body language on returning to her dingy apartment after a rough first day on the force says more about her sense of defeat better than the film’s musical cues can hope to. It is not enough that Zootopia adorns its players with clothing and asks that they walk upright. The film humanizes them best through emotion.
Emotion, of course, is the cornerstone of Zootopia’s success. This is a movie that’s all about big, heartfelt honesty between its principals and its audience. If the text is somewhat basic, it is still painfully familiar: A third-act exchange Nick has with Judy, in which her latent, innate biases get the better of her, hits pretty close to home, no matter that they’re talking about rabbits and foxes. But as much as Zootopia mimics real life, it isn’t real life. Real life, the film tells us, is messy. It’s a damn sight messier than any Disney joint crafted to delight and amuse kids can fully realize, anyways. That doesn’t stop Zootopia from ringing true, though, or from enlightening its viewers while entertaining them. Simple though its politics may be, the film is effective—and coming from a mainstream studio, it is even just daring enough to make a difference.
Directors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush
Writers: Jared Bush, Phil Johnston
Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, J.K. Simmons, Maurice LaMarche, Raymond S. Persi
Release Date: March 4, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.