ZOOTOPIA – You and Me Baby, Ain’t Nothin’ But Mammals

[It’s rude for animals too.]

ZOOTOPIA is a success for Disney on many levels. Financially, it just destroyed the previous box office opening weekend of Frozen. From an animation standpoint, it’s setting new technical achievements. One giraffe in the film has more hairs (9 million) than the entire cast of Frozen combined, and the level of detail shows. But most of all, it succeeds in simply being a really good movie.

First and foremost, ZOOTOPIA is all about the horrors of racism. As Donald Trump leads the GOP Primaries with a message of winners and losers, Mexican rapists, and Muslim jihadists, its message couldn’t have come at a more important time. The film compounds the problem of racism by showing a world devoid of humans. In their place, mammals have evolved to our level, trying to work together, despite their historical animosity towards one another. The benefit of this metaphor is that its lack of specificity allows examples of racism without the baggage that comes with it. Protagonist Judy was top of her class in police school, but still has to rely on an affirmative action measure by the assistant mayor to get a job as Zootopia’s first rabbit cop. She’s soon overshadowed by enormous and ultra-masculine co-workers who resent her. Does Judy represent women in a typically male dominated work space? Does she represent a member of a minority group who, while educated and hard working, may feel small and insignificant in a work force that doesn’t look like her? “Yes” to both of these, but none in particular. Just like the assistant mayor doesn’t necessarily represent the black population, just because she has great hair that people touch without permission.

ZOOTOPIA exhibits a sea of minorities, each trying to prove the value of their individual strengths to overcome the preconceived notions of who they are. The only area the metaphor doesn’t work perfectly is when it starts diving into the animosity and distrust of the prey animals towards the predators. In real life, when bigots try to point out that people from Africa and the Middle East are “genetically predisposed” to violence, it’s easy to dismiss them as idiots because they are scientifically wrong. In Zootopia, one look at fox Nick Wilde’s canine teeth will have you asking questions like “How evolved ARE these animals actually?” and “What do the predators eat in this culture? Has their digestive system also evolved to not need meat? Do they eat the birds, reptiles, or fish that don’t appear anywhere in this film?” It’s probable that most people won’t dig this deep into it, but I worry that people predisposed to hatred will use it as an example of how naive Disney is to think we can and should treat all people as equals.

So, tolerance messaging aside, how is the movie? Pretty good, actually! For starts, it may be the most beautiful computer animated film yet created. The character designs especially are fantastic, evoking the feel of earlier Disney classics like Robin Hood, but if the titular outlaw had thousands of individually animated hairs, each of them realistically lit. ZOOTOPIA didn’t need to be gorgeous in order to be good, but it certainly is a bonus!

Beyond that, the film works really well as a fairly intense film noir and buddy cop movie for families. Each leg of Judy’s investigation brings both surprising and exciting turns, and further develops her relationship with her reluctant partner, Nick. ZOOTOPIA never quite hits the level of Pixar’s greatest emotional roller coaster rides, but it’s earnest, consistently funny, and tightly structured with a lot to say.

Its only real weak spot being an imperfect, but valuable, metaphor, ZOOTOPIA shines as a great example of everything good that modern Disney movies can be. With a lovable cast of new characters, genuine thrills, and gorgeous visuals, I can’t imagine it letting down anyone but the pickiest of racists.

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