For the past several releases, Disney has begun a whole new renaissance that might even match their big return in the 90s. This year we have two films coming from Disney Animation, Zootopia and Moana. Zootopia is the story of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who is the first rabbit to join the police force in Zootopia, mostly due to a “mammal inclusion initiative.” She has always wanted to be a cop despite everyone around her telling her that it doesn’t suit her. Of course once she finally gets into the force, she is put on parking duty. However, one day she is given the chance to prove herself as a real cop by helping solve a missing persons case. She uses (or rather forces) the help of a sly fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to investigate the case since he was the last person to have seen the missing person in question.
Given that the film has been receiving a lot of positive buzz and is coming out for an unsurprisingly big opening weekend, I’m curious how the general audience will react to Zootopia. The film is a story about race, specifically systematic racism. This isn’t something hidden in subtext like the various interpretations (i.e. sexuality, depression, mental illness) of Frozen, in Zootopia race is up there on the surface level being explored in a refreshingly straightforward fashion. There is no hiding from it, and as topical and awkward as it might be, the film addresses a lot of elements about racism in a way that is admirably progressive, open-minded and willing to get a dialogue going. It deals with the issue by having various metaphors working on multiple levels like spinning plates. It is easily the most thematically ambitious film to come from Disney Animation to date, but I would also argue one of their messiest.
Now, a Disney film saying racism is bad is hardly groundbreaking, but I did like that the film attempted to address how prejudice is not just something on an individual basis, but it can also be something that taints an entire system. The problem is that the way the movie goes about getting the message across is not particularly smooth. As I said, it’s layers and layers of metaphors with certain characters (or species) standing in for minority groups and how some situations in the film relate specifically to real life events. My issue is that the film continuously mixes the metaphors in ways that don’t fully make it coherent as to who stands for what. THe big mistake of the film was the use of the “predators” in Zootopia being the minority and the “prey” being the majority. It’s a weirdly backhanded approach at empathy, especially considering they make it clear in the film that in their prehistoric era, it was just like in our world where the predators acted on animal instinct and hunted their prey, before they became civilized. If the predators are a stand in for minorities in America, what exactly is the implication of the whole “they used to be animals, but now they’re civilized” thing? After all, these are still animals we’re talking about and predators can be a problem. It’s the same kind of broken metaphorical logic that ruins the X-Men whenever they’re meant to stand in for minorities (they cause damage, have tons of power, why should we not keep tabs?).
Things get even more muddled when Judy herself, while a prey, is a victim of prejudice. It may seem like the film is tackling sexism in the workplace with her character, but given the film starts off with a flashback with her getting bullied by a Fox (a predator), it sets up a very odd dynamic from the perspective of the audience. Granted the film could easily be saying that prejudice affects everybody even with people who are theoretically a part of the majority, and it takes everyone working together to make the world a better place. Yes, this is most likely what the film is basically going for, but it never feels focused. It is almost determined to cover every aspect of the issue to the point where it doesn’t even feel as genuine as it could have. And a part of it could easily be due to the fact that out of the three directors, two screenwriters and four additional people who got a story credit, two are women and only one those is a woman of color (Jennifer Lee and Josie Trinidad, respectively), and they are both relegated to just getting a story credit. Also, there are only two supporting characters voiced by people of color (Idris Elba and Octavia Spencer), three if you count Tommy Chong, who is half-Chinese. And I’ll just go ahead and say it, the best stories about prejudice/racism are never made by white guys. So, the lack of actual people of color within the writing, directing and acting department is oddly backwards and only speaks more to the try-hardness and lack of authenticity with the thematic explorations in Zootopia. Another reason that adds to the lack of authenticity is the fact that the film itself is kind of already stereotyping animals. The sloths are all slow, the rabbits multiply like there’s no tomorrow, the fox is sly, etc. There is one moment involving an elephant that actually tries to defy the elephant stereotypes, but it’s really the moment like that in the entire movie. If the film is ultimately arguing against negative race relations and providing equal opportunities, wouldn’t stereotyping the animals in the process of telling your story go against the message?
It’s a shame really because there are a lot of interesting things going on and there are a lot ways you can look at the broader picture. One example is that the way the events unfold very much resembles the way the War on Drugs tried to take on the crack epidemic of the 1980s, by basically taking African Americans off the streets and into jail, despite the fact that the CIA had allowed crack to spread in the inner-cities so they could raise funds for the Contras in Nicaragua. OK, Zootopia doesn’t cover all of that, but it’ll make more sense when you see it in the movie. But there are also connections you could make to the Muslim experience in America during the War on Terror, or hell, if you wanna go way back, the way the Roosevelt Administration dealt with Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor. If there was a bit more clarity to the theming of the film, it wouldn’t be a problem; even with all the metaphors being balanced, but the film couldn’t quite nail it.
Granted, my problems with the film biting off much more than it could chew hardly makes it a bad movie. Personally, I’ll take a movie that tries too hard over a movie that plays it safe. And while I wouldn’t call Zootopia “risky,” I at least appreciate the effort placed in dealing with such a complex issue with as much confidence as they are clearly putting in. One thing that makes this film significantly different from the recent Disney outings is that it is far more plot-driven than it is character-driven. That’s not to say there isn’t any character building moments. There are plenty and we get just enough of those moments, when the film stops to breath for a second, for us to actually attach and endear ourselves to the two main characters. It helps that the voice work by Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman is absolutely stellar and they both probably provide more personality to their roles that what was probably on the page. However, because the film is so caught up on the inner-workings of its universe, the intricacies of the mystery and the relevancy of its message, it does lose a lot of that small scale intimacy that is the heart of most of the recent Disney films like Frozen that have cemented themselves as new classics.
While the film is not quite as impactful and thematically coherent as I would have liked, the film is still a fun, breezy watch. The performances are all great, the animation continues to be top notch and the world building is impressive. There are so many details thrown in, there’s no doubt that I may have missed some jokes in the background. And while we’re on jokes, this is also the most reference-heavy film from Disney, basically standing toe-to-toe with the kind of material you’d expect from a Dreamworks Animation production. Not just with the references, but also with the adult-oriented jokes. There are plenty of them and most of them land. I also liked that the story uses various aspects of buddy cop and noir style storytelling as it goes along, as it provided with some sequences that had genuine intrigue and suspense.
If we are in the midst of a new Disney Renaissance, then Zootopia is easily this generation’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It’s an admirably ambitious film that tries to tackle heavy, complex and relevant themes, but in execution, comes off as deeply flawed, but still enjoyable on the surface. I do think Zootopia is, on the whole, better than Hunchback (except the “Hellfire” sequence, that’s one of the best Disney things ever). The message of Zootopia is unquestionably great and something we can all learn from, but the manner at which the film tries to tell us the message doesn’t fully work. It tries to do too many things and the metaphorical coding of minorities as predators is very problematic and only speaks to the lack of coherency in its theming, which really rubbed me the wrong way. It’s a perfectly fine film overall, and there are great moments in it, for sure, but given how much I’ve enjoyed Disney’s recent work, I wished I was more happy with the execution. Hey, at least it’ll get some interesting conversations going. 70 / 100