When this movie first came out, I must have gone, oh Jesus no, not another bloody animated film about cute talking animals, and skipped it. It however turned out to be a smarter and much more inventive movie than I anticipated, with the amount of social commentary that’s quite heavy for a kids film. While I found some of its messages rather muddled, Zootopia is a fun, charming, beautifully animated Disney flick that’s part fish-out-of-water, part mismatched buddies comedy, part detective whodunnit.
Zootopia is quite literally an animal utopia, where the predators had evolved past their savage nature and carnivores and herbivores live peacefully side by side. It’s never explained though what diet the predators survive on now that a lion doesnt’ chomp down on his sheep neighbours. Our heroine the bunny seems to eat normal rabbit food like carrots, but all we see the predators eat in the movie is… donuts, ice-cream and candy? Also, why would this evolved society still keep the terms “prey” and “predator”, which are loaded to say the least, as a popular way to divide the population into two categories? But I digress.
Our heroine is a bunny named Judy Hops (Ginnifer Goodwin), who grows up on a carrot farm and has a big dream of becoming the first bunny police officer in the city of Zootopia. She makes it through the gruelling police training course after learning to make clever use of her diminutive size, but disappointingly gets assigned to meter maid duties. This is a good news to her overprotective parents back home, who give her a fox pepper spray as a parting gift along with the warnings about that sworn enemy of the rabbits. Naturally, Judy ends up teaming up with a red fox named Nick Wilde (a fantastic performance from Jason Bateman), a wily small-time crook, in order to solve the mysterious disappearances of a number of predators. It’s a mix of Chinatown, The Godfather, and every government conspiracy movie in existence. Because I’ve seen quite a lot of these, it was dead easy to figure out who’s behind it all, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. Man I do miss great Disney villains though.
The best thing in the film is the dazzling city of Zootopia itself. It covers different terrains like rainforest and tundra, and the creators obviously had tons of fun imagining how the city could accommodate the animals of wildly different shapes and sizes. The film is full of small amusing details like the various sizes of the doors on a train carriage that range from large to rodent-sized. Speaking of rodents, my favourite district of Zootopia is Little Rodentia, where Judy suddenly becomes a 50 Foot Woman, knocking over the miniature buildings and almost squashing their inhabitants. Judy and Nick make for a fun odd couple; Judy starts off as such a starry-eyed little Miss Perfect it’s a relief to have her interact with a cynical character who’s initially rude and dismissive to her. They had such good chemistry in fact that at one point I began to wonder if the inter-species romance was a thing in this universe. Maybe the filmmakers intended their relationship to remain strictly platonic, or maybe they just didn’t want to get into the whole awkward biology thing. Or maybe it’s something left for the sequel.
Zootopia wears its message about the harm of stereotyping on its sleeve, but at times it feels like the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too, by both preaching the message and relying on the stereotypes for the laughs. I can get onboard with the message about looking past some species stereotypes – bunnies are weak and dumb, foxes can’t be trusted – and when Nick opens up about his personal experience with anti-fox sentiments it makes for a touching moment. But later on the movie gets onto the topic of majority and discriminated minority in a way that made me think back to the early seasons of True Blood, and the problem I had with presenting vampires as an allegory for the real-life persecuted minorities. It doesn’t quite work when your minority is biologically wired to be a serious threat; vampires feed on humans and carnivores evolved to eat herbivores. The movie has its heart in the right place, but I think that it maybe bit off more than it could chew.