Disney’s Zootopia has a lot going on with it. On the surface, it’s a anthropomorphic buddy cop film, starring a cute little bunny (voiced by the adorable Gennifer Goodwin) and a sly fox (voiced by the master of subtle delivery, Jason Bateman), who solve a major crime in a world made up of talking animals. This is the Disney part. But underneath that exterior lies something else. Something a bit darker. And like peeling any onion, the more skin you take off, the more is revealed, and by the end of Zootopia, the cute talking animal cartoon is really closer akin to, say, HBO’s True Detective series (first season). Yes, it gets that dark.
As Zootopia opens, Judy Hopps (Goodwin) is a little bunny, with dreams of being something more than a carrot farmer like her father before her, and his father before him, and so on. She wants to be a cop, even though no bunny has ever worn the badge. This is her dream, dang it, and no one will stop her from achieving it. Somewhere, the ghost of Walt Disney stopped counting his money long enough to approve of this.
After successfully completing training school (with the highest marks ever), Judy gets the call to the big city to join the police force. All of her excitement is quickly dashed when she is passed over on all the good assignments by her commanding officer, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) and is given meter maid duty. It seems that there has been a rash of disappearances in Zootopia, and all the good cops are placed on that assignment, leaving Judy to feel left out.
While on duty writing parking ticket after parking ticket, she comes across Nick Wilde (Bateman) a con man — er — fox, running a grift, and her views of the world begin to shift. This isn’t her home town of Bunnyburrow anymore, and Judy has to learn to adapt to the big city ways. As you might guess, Judy and Nick get sucked into a much larger conspiracy, one that threatens all of Zootopia and its various districts, and the two unlikely allies are forced to work together to bring justice to the bad guys.
And the motivations of those bad guys, and the way they are pulling off their crime is not just simple white hat/black hat, cops and robbers. This is where the comparisons to True Detective some in. Judy and Nick face some very scary situations. There is a threat to the heroes here, multiple times, really. In fact, during our press screening, a younger child screamed and went into a fit of tears at one point during a particularly scary part. This film is rated PG, and while it has the Disney name on it, that doesn’t always mean it is G-rated. Parents be warned.
Zootopia tackles some pretty big issues. Various “isms” like sexism, racism, and nationalism are all presented, using cute, adorable animals as the vehicle. Predators vs. Prey, or how can we trust our own neighbors, is a prominent theme — one with real world implications. Implications that we all deal with now. And it does so with that patented Disney veneer that you may not even realize that it’s happening.
While the Pixar films have definitely found themselves in a thematic rut (seriously, every Pixar movie now follows the exact same formula), Disney Animation has been pushing the boundaries of amazing storytelling as of late. Big Hero 6 was more than just a superhero story, and now, in Zootopia, social concerns play a huge role in the core story. Sure, “follow your dreams” and “you can be whatever you want be” (as sang by a Gazelle voiced by Shakira) are what Disney is selling up front, but those that dig a little deeper will see the dark underbelly of social activism at play here, and believe me, it is what makes Zootopia such an outstanding film. If a Syrian refugee moved in next door to you, you might be a little apprehensive. You might be more watchful of their actions, and you probably wouldn’t try to make friends with them. Now imagine that same scenario if a lion moved next door to a beaver. This is how Zootopia transcends the talking animal comedy and becomes something more.
In addition to the social commentary, the script by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston (based off a story by eight different people), also does some incredible world building here. Zootopia is the big city, but there are other districts, including a frozen tundra, a rainforest, a desert, and a district for the tiniest of residents (think rodents). Each district is fleshed out — with its own population of animal residents, and even if Judy and Nick only visit a district for a short time on their investigation, the audience gets the feeling that this world is lived in. I fell in love with this world, and hope that we see it again, preferably in a film sequel, but more likely on a TV series on Disney XD.
Zootopia is way more than what the advertisements and trailers make it out to be. After seeing the film, I started to pay closer attention to the commercials, and even the toys on sale, and I can see how the Disney machine is working overdrive on selling this as a family comedy, and leaving the surprise of a deeper story — one that will resonate with adults more than the children — for discovery. And sure, maybe you’ll see this film and only relate to the hilariously slow Sloth named Flash (who works at the DMV), or maybe you’ll get the joke that the Otter is named Emmett, or that the brain-fried hippie Yak is voiced by Tommy Chong, and maybe you’ll understand that the drug dealer’s friends being named Walter and Jesse might have a special meaning. Whichever level of engagement you have, Zootopia will entertain you. You will laugh, you may cry, depending on your age, you may scream, and in the end, you might think. And if all of that happens, then Disney Animation has truly pulled off the unthinkable. I felt those emotions, and that is why Zootopia is one of my favorite movies of the year.
Zootopia is rated PG and is in theaters now.
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