Zootopia (2016)

Dir. Byron Howard and Rich Moore. Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Jenny Slate

Zootopia is built on sight gags, one of those rare gifts to animated film that just work better there than in real life. Judy Hopps (Goodwin), who is incredibly small compared to the other animals in Zootopia, chases a thief into a district filled with mice, shrews, and other little rodents. There, of course, she’s an absolute giant, taller than the buildings and dwarfing the inhabitants. In another scene, her unwilling partner Nick (Bateman) brings her to the “Mystic Springs Oasis,” which turns out to be a nudist center for animal yoga and new wave vibes. Judy’s reactions to the totally naked animals – as well as the way that the animals pose, which is clearly suggestive but is clearly not, since they’re, y’know, animals – are delightful. Even the first scene of the film, which features a stage play which discusses how predators and prey now interact peacefully with one another (starring a young Judy, a bottle of ketchup, and an extremely dramatic little panther playing piano), relies heavily on visual puns and visual humor to make the scene work. And no one scene mugs for the camera like the DMV, where the people behind the counter are all sloths. Arguably the best moment in the film is the moment where one sloth, Flash, gets a joke – and the smile slowly lights up his face.

Disney is never going to return to that blissful combination of critical heft and stacks-on-stacks domination which it boasted in the 1990s; NBC will never dominate TV comedy again either, and the Yankees will have one heck of a hard time dominating the American League as it stands now. Disney has, in this decade, consistently fired off strong films with significant box office cachet: TangledWreck-It Ralph, FrozenBig Hero 6, and now Zootopia. No one will ever mistake this for the Little Mermaid through Tarzan lineup, but there’s not a bad movie in the bunch, and remarkably, there’s some level of range. Only two of those five (to be made three of six by the release of Moana next month) are musicals in the Disney Renaissance mode. Wreck-It Ralph and Zootopia are hardly the first examples of non-musical comedy that Disney has tried in the past fifteen years. The difference is that other studios came up with Shrek and Ice Age and Madagascar and Happy Feet (and, while not strictly competition, there’s Pixar to contend with) in those fifteen years as well; Chicken Little or Meet the Robinsons simply can’t compete. But what if, after several years of wandering in the wilderness without a diet of catchy songs and Broadway stars to lean on, Disney has started to figure out how these non-musical comedies work?

Zootopia feels polished, like there’s an army of little toys for each of the different boroughs of Zootopia to be fabricated from it, like there’s a solid little plot hanging around as well. It’s the perfect Venn Disneygram, but there’s an unnecessary – not as in unwelcome, but more unexpected – line of thought about law enforcement.

For one thing, I think it’s daring to make a film which thinks of law enforcement as a solution and not a problem; Judy  is a raging idealist, someone who believes that cops are there to help make things better within a community. (From the cheap seats: “Wow, it really is a fantasy world!”) Judy has a serious disadvantage, though. She’s a rabbit, and no rabbit has ever been brought on by law enforcement in Zootopia. Although her training doesn’t begin auspiciously, she learns to adjust for her small size and ultimately graduates as valedictorian of her class, assigned to a central precinct in Zootopia. We see why police officers haven’t come with rabbit ears before; being a cop in Zootopia means being huge. The officer at the desk, Benjamin (Nate Torrence) is a cheetah who is mostly just fat. But the police chief, Bogo (Idris Elba), is a Cape buffalo; Judy is surrounded by rhinoceroses and elephants and hippos and so on, absolutely dwarfed by her coworkers. She’s assigned to give out parking tickets. It rankles, but her can-do attitude means she wants to do the best job she can. And she does, and it feels good, until someone who just got a ticket sarcastically tells her that she must feel great about doing such a good job. (Then it doesn’t feel so good anymore.) Judy recognizes that for her position as a cop to matter, it’s not enough to just do a good job, but that doing genuinely good deeds is much more important. No wonder that when she witnesses a robbery she goes after the criminal at top speed, and no wonder that she puts her job on the line to solve a case with no leads.

The deputy mayor of Zootopia, a sheep named Dawn (Slate) reveals towards the end of the film that for every predator in the city, there are 10 prey. The mayor of the city is a predator, a lion, who was elected on the backs of the sheep vote. There’s something like a prestige factor for predators in the aggregate, although there’s also a largely unspoken fear (at least in the first half of the movie) that predators are more aggressive and dangerous than prey. For example, a bully Judy stands up to in the opening minutes of the film is a fox; the fourteen open cases that Chief Bogo has all refer back to predators. And there are certainly stereotypes for each type of animal. Rabbits are cutesy; foxes are tricky and untrustworthy. When animals live up to those stereotypes – in short, when Judy is at her lowest and goes back to the family farm, or when Nick is at his lowest and deep in his con artist shtick – it’s because other animals expect them to act that way. Zootopia is not trying to be the TOS episode “Let That Be Your Best Battlefield” or, even worse, that fake screenplay Kinsey tries to foist off on Harry Crane in a later season of Mad Men. There’s no obvious racial characterization of predators or prey, and there shouldn’t be for about a thousand reasons. What’s being depicted in Zootopia is much broader, and thus far more digestible: prejudice. Both sides are prejudiced against one another in ways that are far less damaging than what we see in real life, but what’s striking about the film is the way that the majority group (with the help of a zealous but undiscerning media) is extremely ready to tip. When Judy exposes the sudden savagery of the fourteen predators on Bogo’s list, and then posits that it may have to do with “biology,” there’s a panic throughout Zootopia as prey begin to worry that their predator neighbors will snap. The plan to pit the two groups against each other is Dawn’s, but Judy is the one who unknowingly publicizes that opinion, and in the end, Judy is a key figure in exposing the conspiracy. A police officer feeds a problem of prejudice until it grows in total disproportion, but in the end manages to solve it as well and restore harmony to two vastly different groups. The film is at least as idealistic as Judy. For children, it’s delicately instructive; for adults, between laughs about how slow the DMV is and how perfectly cast Jason Bateman(‘s voice) is, there’s a weird penumbra about the film that casts “If only” over its most serious moments.

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