At a glance, Zootopia, the latest release from Disney Animation Studios looks just like, well, the latest release from Dreamworks Animation Studios. Yes, this film is brightly coloured, CGI rendered comedy-adventure set in a world of talking animals, but Zootopia has bigger ideas on its mind than just being a fun kids’ movie, which it mostly is. The film also wishes to tackle the topics of bigotry and prejudice head on (I’ve heard many cite racism as the film’s core theme but I think its allegory applies to any minority), and that where it runs into some trouble. This isn’t some subtle sub-text either, it’s the film’s primary substance.
For whatever reason, humans don’t exist in the world of Zootopia, but animals have evolved to the extent that they all behave like humans and live in similar societies (well vertebrates do anyway, the first of several unexplained and mildly frustrating implications the film’s universe presents). Our lead is a rabbit named Judy Hopps, enthusiastically voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin with an infectious optimism. She comes from a large family of carrot farmers in a small town but dreams of moving to the big city and becoming a police officer. Her parents are against the idea (her father gives her an amusing speech early on about settling for what you know) but she’s driven to achieve her goal, even though there’s never been a rabbit police officer before.
This is the first stereotype the film confronts, that only larger animals are capable of performing the tougher jobs –one that her police captain, a water buffalo (Idris Elba) seems to agree with, as he initially will only assign her parking duty. This aspect of the film works fairly well, ably demonstrating the barriers Judy finds herself having to cross in a quest to be judged on her policing abilities rather than the fact that she’s a rabbit. This notion extends to the film’s co-lead as well.
Performing parking duty, Judy runs into a red fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) whom she initially refuses in principle to believe could be a criminal (her parents are so worried about foxes that they send her off with a canister of ‘fox repellent’). Unfortunately for her, it’s soon revealed that Nick is in fact a petty criminal, but the more we learn about him, the more fascinating a character he becomes. He’s someone who has ultimately decided that if the world will only ever see him as a stereotype, he might as well just embrace it. Again, these are affectingly mature themes for a family film to explore.
The mismatched pair makes for a decent would-be buddy-cop team, and go through a lot of the motions of learning to appreciate one another with ease, and as the main plot of the film becomes more apparent, it also resembles something out of crime thriller. There’s something sinister going on underground in Zootopia, as a small number of animals have been reported missing after “going savage” i.e. reverting to what we would consider their natural state; and that’s when the big issues emerge, and the talking animal allegory begins to seriously falter.
For starters, what do the carnivorous animals eat (they’re all referred to here as ‘predators’, with no mention of scavengers)? Do they just eat fruits and vegetables? Have their bodies evolved to survive on a herbivorous diet? There’s no mention of this whatsoever, and we only see Nick eating an ice lolly.
I suppose we could ignore that careless omission, but then let’s look at the real issue; the film’s anti-prejudice message is based around the notion that we shouldn’t judge people on our preconceptions of them from their appearance. Great…but… historically in Zootopia’s world (and in real life)…predators do eat prey. The herbivores’ fears of the carnivores aren’t based on propaganda or damaging, unfair stereotypes, but what these animals actually did (a character also refers to “the predator family” at one point which had me rolling my eyes). You can tell exactly what they’re going for, but the message becomes confused when what the film is also saying is that these stereotypes of some species being more dangerous than others are all based in truth. The film is also explicit in conferring that predators are the minority; with several mentions of how they make up only 10% of the population. It’s, to use the current buzzword, somewhat problematic.
Conversely, using animals’ biological features as character traits here does also admittedly result in one of the film’s stand-out scenes involving an office manned exclusively by sloths, and a few other undoubtedly funny lines throughout.
Zootopia also has a few issues beyond this concerning ‘adult humour’ which, oddly considering it’s visual resemblance to some of Dreamworks’ output, is more in-line with their earlier work (a trend they’ve thankfully since dropped). The best family animations – your Toy Stories and Kung Fu Pandas – should have material that works for adults and children, and considering its main themes, Zootopia is clearly striving to be such a movie. That makes it all the more baffling when, at around the halfway point, the film gives us an extended sequence spoofing The Godfather that’s never remotely funny. Please, Animation Studio heads, it does not make me feel clever to pick up on this or your big Breaking Bad homage (which happens later on), these references are not sly or clever, they are lazy and annoying.
On the whole, Zootopia is fine as a story of mismatched partners learning to overcome their differences. It’s undoubtedly well-intentioned and admirable in its aspirations even if some are ultimately muddled. It’s willingness to combine a fun adventure story about talking animals with a positive message isn’t something to be sniffed at, but it’s allegory is something that could probably have done with a bit more thought, because the more you think about it, the more it struggles.