Disney animated films have received quite the focus here on Plot and Theme, but I have never actually had the opportunity to review one while it was in theatres. Fortunately, Zootopia has provided just such an opportunity. Even better: it might be the best Disney film since The Lion King. The film is structured as a kind of film noir with anthropomorphic mammals living in a metropolis designed to cater to their specific environmental needs. In this world, we learn not only the importance of determination, ability, and friendship – but also the seductive evils of prejudice and the proper response to it. Zootopia excels by balancing these complex themes and allowing them to play out in an imaginative world, a feat which would stymie most any film.
Zootopia first succeeds through its world-building techniques. Much like Pixar’s Inside Out, the audience needs to be introduced to the world, because even though we get the basic idea, details help flesh everything out. Furthermore, selecting only specific details helps inform the audience of the themes and plot elements that we should be paying attention to. All of this takes the form of a school play starring our main protagonist Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin as an adult, but in the earlier scenes she is voiced by Della Saba). Here, we learn that mammals used to be wild, but now they are evolved and sophisticated. Predators and prey coexist peacefully, and have constructed Zootopia and its many climate-controlled zones to acquiesce to all manner of creatures. Finally, when Judy stands up to a bully fox after the show, the major thematic element of prejudice is introduced.
Judy Hopps is a bouncy and joyous character, and though practically everyone she knows tries to dissuade her from following her dream to become a police officer in Zootopia, she achieves her goal and becomes the first ever bunny police officer. It is mostly through her Podunk-accustomed eyes that we experience the world of Zootopia, lending the narrative a fish-out-of-water feel that works well. When Judy reports for duty the next morning she is placed on parking ticket duty, and though she exceeds expectations, she remains unappreciated by Chief Bogo, a cape buffalo voiced by Idris Elba.
While Judy is out tapering cars with tickets, she meets the shyster Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a street-smart fox with an amusing hustle that the film does a great job of introducing. Despite the clearly antagonistic Fox/Bunny relationship dynamics, the two get along reasonably well if a little combative. There are a few moments where Judy lazily allows prejudiced thought about foxes to dominate her opinions on Nick, but she is quick to dismiss these thoughts. This is a nuanced and respectably view on how racism often works in the real world, and Zootopia manages to introduce and develop these ideas without resorting to heavy-handedness or feeling preachy.
A turn of events teams Nick up with Judy on a legitimate case, and from there Zootopia does the best film noir impression that I have ever seen from an animate film directed at kids. I was honestly reminded of Chinatown at times during the resulting narrative, and the whole thing is put together incredibly well. Further, the material can get quite dark at times, as the major plot element revolves around predators reverting back to their “wild” state and attacking citizens of Zootopia. Hence, despite Judy and Nick “solving” the case initially, this serves only to augment the fear experienced by the prey species, which represent 90% of the Zootopia population. At a press conference, Judy proposes an atavistic explanation for the predators going wild, painting them as fundamentally uncivilized and hypothesizing that something is causing them to express these latent characteristics.
Predictably, this establishes an atmosphere of fear and distrust of predators. Here the allegory becomes crystal clear and especially cogent. Children watching Zootopia will not likely connect the on-screen actions of the prey species as stand-ins for the hatred of many Donald Trump supporters or other examples of racially-motivated groupthink, but adults in the audiences certainly will. And, as Zootopia struggles with this conflict, the parallels with our own world seem ever-more poignant, despite the fact that you’re watching a cartoon featuring anthropomorphic mammals.
Ultimately, this is the great strength of Zootopia. It’s two major themes interact beautifully in large part due to the construction of the characters and the world. Though Judy is a bunny, she has high aspirations to shatter the lowly expectations that are generally put on bunnies – and she become the first bunny police officer. Yet, though she is accustomed to thinking outside of the box like this, even she falls for the seductive ideas of determinism when it comes to predators reverting to their wild state (of course prey could never revert!). Her character arc is dedicated to resolving this contradiction, and is a major element of the plot-theme of Zootopia. The brilliance of the film becomes clear when you realize that were these character not animals, both allegories fall apart.
Though the struggles of a human Judy would still be worthy of celebration, the visual imagery of a tiny bunny police officer standing next to titanic rhinos, buffaloes, and elephants symbolizes her struggle and achievement in an instant. Similarly, stories focusing on racial elements are commonplace, but having a behavioral characteristic uniquely attributable to one group over another allows Zootopia to exploit the predator/prey relationship to parallel how politicians and intellectuals often pit one group against another in our world. This happy marriage of style and theme capitalizes on the ingrained aspects of animals to perfectly craft a powerful story of dedication and friendship and serves as a denunciation of the abhorrent doctrine of determinism.
All-told, Zootopia is the best animated film from Disney since the early 1990s, offering an imaginative story centered around poignant and universal themes. The main characters are fleshed-out with nuance and have compelling arcs that have nothing to do with romance. The animation is astounding and the world-building inventive. Even the jokes and references are clever. But above all, this film is a beautiful treatment of a fundamental challenge for all of us – judging others by merits rather than appearance or pedigree. The lessons of Zootopia will always be in demand, and everyone will benefit from the existence of this spectacular film.