Okay, dumb question: If a group of animals enclose themselves by choice and aren’t directly supervised by humans, do they still belong to a zoo? If not, why would they name their town ‘Zootopia’? Was this simply a marketing choice? Or is it a commentary on the idea that these animals are ‘captured’ by the animators and viewed by humans.
My guess is that it’s the marketing route, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the correct choice was the latter answer, considering how clever this movie’s script is. Not only is it well structured, but the film is filled with important lessons—the kind you don’t always find in a kids movie, but always should. Written by screenwriter Phil Johnston of Wreck-It Ralph and TV writer Jared Bush (plus a whole bunch of story credits), the story takes place in the fictional land of ‘Zootopia’, where ‘anyone can be anything’. In spite of this tagline, when a bunny named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) decides she wants to be a police officer, she is laughed at because there has never been a bunny police officer. However, she is undeterred by this, and with enough hard work and persistence, she accomplishes her goal.
For most kids movies, this would be as far as they’d go in terms of message. Working hard and overcoming adversity is normally a 90-minute endeavor, but for Judy it’s just one of her character traits. The truly interesting ideas come along when she arrives for her first day of work and finds that she has been relegated to the lowly post of meter maid. She excels in her role but is anxious to make a difference, so she jumps at the chance to try and find a missing otter (despite potentially threatening her career). Along the way, she meets and teams up with a fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who experiences and accepts various forms of stereotyping along the way.
Obviously, a big theme here is racial relations, but the film doesn’t just stop at ‘racism is bad’. It embraces a discussion about all of racism’s complexities, systematic inequalities and micro-aggressions. But because the characters are talking animals, the film has an ability to argue the point without overtly saying it, in a way approachable to both adults and children.
And because of the narrative, the movie is also able to structure itself as a buddy cop comedy. This serves quite a few purposes. First, the need to move from one place to another allows for an ability to explore the entire city of ‘Zootopia,’ creating an opportunity for quite a bit of situational comedy and a wide variety of characters being introduced. These characters are all very well developed, even if they’re only in a couple of scenes and used just for a gimmick. Second, the film is able to develop a strong relationship between its two main characters, whose chemistry is stronger than those in most live-action buddy comedies. In fact, this was an obvious priority for the filmmakers. Although the animation may not be aggressively stunning, it’s lack of distracting flair ultimately serves the story. Finally, the cop construct allows for a discussion about bias in policing and race relations.
However, the metaphor is not perfect. The movie jumps into dangerous territory when it continually categorizes animals as either ‘predators’ or ‘prey’. It’s commentary about racial complexity is also a bit hit-or-miss. Not to mention that it would be great for the movie to have more people of color and disadvantaged groups in the writing room. Yet ultimately, it does much more good than harm. Its ambitions are high, and if nothing else, it creates more room for discussion. I’m not the person who should be starting these discussions, though. Instead, I’ve included links to more specific points from some fantastic writers.
But let’s ignore all of the messages in the film for just a moment. Zootopia is still the best animated kids movie of the year. The jokes almost always land (for kids and adults alike), the pace is fast and the character development is fantastic. Oftentimes, kids movies can feel like actions films: lots of colors and tired structures. Instead, this one goes above and beyond. Combine that with the fact that there’s actually a purpose for the movie’s existence, and we have not just a great kids film, but a great movie for all audiences.
As you’ve perhaps come to expect, my little sister saw the movie with me and has some thoughts of her own. Her name is Elizabeth, but you should call her ‘Quill’. She turns nine in ten days, and she’s decided to be my partner-in-crime on this freelance film critic venture:
I like animals so I like this movie a bit more than most kid movies. But the main reason I like it is that it is fun and funny (the fun twins). It also throws grownups a bone. Because it has a lot of lessons, you can say it is a good mix between learning and fun. All of the thanks to the movie is to the people who made it. And I think it has a lot of work in it.