For a studio that in modern times has taken a lot of flak for past racist cartoon depictions, Disney has come a long way with “Zootopia.” It’s as though someone at the Mouse House must have off-handedly said how great would it be if they could make a kids’ movie about racism and classism and one if not all seven writers with story credits on “Zootopia” raised their hands and said “challenge accepted.”
Indeed, the CGI-era non-Pixar team at Disney has done just that, hitting its stride big time after “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Frozen.” (This critic has regrettably yet to see “Big Hero 6.”) “Zootopia” has all the best trappings of an entertaining animated family film with ample wit and heart.
Yet while most animated films featuring talking animals simply for marketing purposes, the writing team (again, too many names to name here) offers an explanation of sorts. Much like 2012’s “Wreck-It Ralph” built an entire film around video game characters existing beyond the screen, “Zooptopia” — which borrows all four writers from “Ralph,” including its director (Rich Moore) —crafts a world in which animals have evolved beyond survival instincts (and humans don’t exist) and try to live together in harmony. By turning species characteristics into stereotypes and creating a predator-prey distinction, Disney lays the groundwork for an incredibly socially relevant movie.
“Zootopia” follows Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny who has aspired for her entire life to become a police officer in the mammal metropolis of Zootopia despite everyone telling her she’s supposed to be a carrot farmer. But the story isn’t so cliché that it results in some “anyone can be anything” tale. It goes well beyond, testing Judy’s idealism and can-do spirit after she meets sly fox Nick (Jason Bateman) and starts to investigate a missing mammals case.
The references to race and class are not subtle, and they go beyond serving as accompanying themes to movie. While kids will certainly not pick up on all of them, the filmmakers’ intent is clearly to draw on examples of racism and prejudice from our world and introduce them in ways that kids can grapple with. There are elements of mystery and themes of friendship and believing in yourself, but “Zootopia” stands out for making this concerted effort to highlight divisions and differences and how they do not define us.
The seriousness of this subject matter does not subvert the kid-friendly tone of the film, however. There’s definitely a certain maturity to it (and even some scary moments), but the creative team has put together a colorful, vibrant world with various amusing characters and silly moments.
Yet it’s heart that really elevates “Zootopia.” The big issues and themes allow it to go into somewhat uncharted animated territory, but also the characters of Judy and Nick are thoughtfully constructed. Judy is perhaps the perfect heroine and her journey is so incredibly sincere; Nick has the potential to be a bit more of an archetype, but he has many complex shades that help convey this notion that no character can be put in a box. The story really goes out of its way to make that point too.
“Zootopia” isn’t George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” but it might be the most socially conscious and intelligent offering in the 20 years of this CGI era. The fact that kids and adults should enjoy it equally only makes it the more impressive. While Pixar has the clout, look at the last five years and Disney Animation’s body of work is more impressive (and without any sequels). We should look forward to both with equal eagerness.
Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush
Written by Byron Howard, Jared Bush, Rich Moore, Josie Trinidad, Jim Reardon, Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee
Starring: (voices) Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate