Zootopia is a cute, funny neo-noir with a kidnapping-mystery plot and heavy themes about racism in a city where diverse animal species attempt to live together in harmony. That’s a lot; let it sink in for a moment.
Animals have been central to storytelling metaphors for centuries. Well-told animal fables have a timeless air — the tale of the frog and the scorpion may only date back to the 1950s, but it could easily be mistaken for something far older. The best of these stories tend to keep things simple, as throwing too many animal symbols into one tale muddies the message.
Walt Disney Animation’s tatest throws everything in the pot. The character designs are expressive and appealing, and the “city for animals” setting sets up one clever gag after another. But the film can be a somewhat dark and even weird story about the the virulence of prejudice.
The primary character duo, a rabbit and a fox, are so well-crafted that the central idea — “be who you want to be, no matter what role others assume you’re fit for” — comes across loud and clear. Other ideas aren’t always effectively delivered, however. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore, with co-director Jared Bush and several additional writers, get a bit distracted by the film’s metaphoric possibilities.
That fox and rabbit, natural enemies, would be an unlikely duo in reality. Prejudices in Zootopia make them an awkward pairing even in this fantasy world. The rabbit, Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin, conveying a wide range with her voice work), is a new cop on the job. She’s tasked with a “missing predator” case after a number of animals vanish with no clues left behind. The fox, Nick (Jason Bateman, making precise use of his capacity for both charm and smarm), is a streetwise grifter who pegs Judy as a mark before being coerced into helping out on the case.
Both characters have been subject to discrimination and bullying, but Judy shows prejudice in action when she profiles Nick moments after first setting eyes on him. She follows him into a store because he’s “shifty.” Soon after, Judy, meaning to be positive, calls him “very articulate,” one of those back-handed compliments often used to express bigotry in real life. At this point, we already know Judy is sensitive to language. As she tells one well-meaning character, “one bunny can call another cute,” but other animals applying the term to rabbits is frowned upon.
As the two untangle the missing animal mystery, Judy faces discrimination of her own, frequently at the hands of her police chief boss, a water buffalo voiced by Idris Elba. No rabbit has ever been a cop (Judy is the first success in a “small mammal initiative” sort of affirmative action) and the police chief shrugs off all her abilities as secondary to her small size. Judy struggles to be accepted at work, even as she has to come to terms with her own ingrained anti-fox feelings.
When using that core duo to illustrate the narrow thinking of prejudice, Zootopia is a success, especially as a film for kids that puts across ideas about the damaging effects of bigotry.
Zoom out for the bigger picture, and the film gets tricky. It doesn’t have room to accommodate all its ideas, some of which come off as only partially formed. The slow evolution of trust between rabbit and fox mirrors the truth of Zootopia as a city. There, tensions simmer behind a veneer of gentility as many different animal species, both predator and prey, live side by side. (What do predators eat, now that former prey animals are now neighbors? The film doesn’t say.)
The mystery plot folds in a drug menace metaphor (there’s even a big Breaking Bad reference) as it explores tensions between species by imagining predatory animals running wild in the streets. That language is pointed, as words like “predator” have been used to slander minorities in our world. As one of a couple discrimination metaphors in the film, this particular concept works as the plot device for a thriller, but sits uneasily alongside the film’s greater thematic concern.
Directors Howard and Moore use great comic action set-pieces to reveal the city. Size disparity is (ahem) a big concern as bears, for instance, live alongside tiny voles. In one sequence, Judy chases a thief into a neighborhood inhabited by rodents. She towers over the inhabitants, threatening to crush them underfoot. Facing a panther later in the film, she’s the tiny one, barely a snack for the rampaging predator.
(There’s an observation about segregation implied in this neighborhood setup. An elephant just can’t go into the rodent neighborhood without destroying it. Judy knocks those buildings over like a good-natured Kaiju; a much larger animal could wipe the place off the map with a single misstep.)
As a city, Zootopia is like an Escher drawing rearranged for livability — a maze of visual puns. Wildly different species find accommodation in clever architectural touches and an intricate clockwork of city planning. In truth, we never see the real mechanisms that keep the city moving. Only the bits that add notes to jokes or enhance the thrills of a set-piece get the spotlight.
When Zootopia slows down to wind through a labyrinth of racial metaphors and mystery story plot developments, it is quite good, racing forward with vibrant energy through the twisty plot. The core story of Judy and Nick, however, is strong enough to stick with viewers and stand proudly alongside Walt Disney Animation’s best recent achievements.
3.5 out of 5