There are just some subjects that are difficult to explain to children. Often, we look to entertainment to do that kind of heavy lifting for us — very special episodes, books written for specific subjects, and, yes, even Disney movies. Now there’s a new film in the line up to help explain the tricky subject of prejudice, and it doesn’t actually make you want to uncomfortably crawl into yourself.
Let’s take a look at Zootopia.
The film follows Judy Hopps, a rabbit from Bunnyburrow who wants to be a cop, despite the fact that it is an occupation typically reserved for larger and stronger animals. She manages to graduate from the academy only to be placed on parking duty. Enter Nick Wilde, a con artist fox who draws the ire of Judy by tricking her. With some pushing, she gets put on the case to find a missing otter, and enlists (or rather blackmails) Nick to join her as she searches the city. However, there’s a dark plot under the surface wherein the whole of Zootopia will be turned on its head.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the review…or rather the complex system of stereotypes surrounding predator and prey. The film is about prejudice and racism but instead of race being the alienating factor or what dictates who can and can’t be a specific thing, it’s species along with an overarching classification of predator and prey. In the world itself, it seems archaic since predators no longer kill prey but that’s probably the point. There’s no one species that is a direct representation of any one people which is a smart choice as, one, it doesn’t make one race the “aggressive predator” and two, everyone experiences different levels and kinds of prejudice so it’s clear it is an institutional and societal problem. Originally, the predators were all going to wear shock collars but I’m glad they decided against it, since it would take away some of the relatability. For a children’s film, you can’t ask for more nuance than that. Heck, it’s more nuanced than most films made for adults.
The best part of the film is the world building. Zootopia as a place wherein lots of different types of animals live and so lots of different environments have to be made. We get a glimpse at a few of them: Sahara Square, Tundra Town, and Little Rodentia, all filled with different varieties of creatures. Every kind of animal has their needs met and they can freely move from area to area and generally live in peace, despite their prejudices. It is truly the intricate design and thoughtful layout that makes the world of Zootopia feel whole and open, not just in the parts we’re allowed to see. The great thing is if they ever want to make a sequel or expand the franchise, they have a lot of setting to choose from and stories to tell.
In terms of character, Judy and Nick have some of the best buddy cop chemistry I have seen in a long time. The optimistic and determined Judy mixes well with the bitter and jaded Nick in their banter, not to mention the interesting dynamic between a predator and prey animal as a way to emphasize trust. Most importantly, however, both carry insecurities and doubts that plague them and their actions, so neither one is the good or bad guy. Both make mistakes, both play important parts in solving the mystery, and both understand what it takes to make the partnership work. The rest of the cast, like the Mayor and his assistant Bellwether, the police chief and Office Clawhauser, Judy’s parents, and Nick’s fellow-fox-in-crime are all hilarious and work well in the movie’s universe.
The writing is excellent, particularly with the witty dialogue. While there are several pop culture references, they are more inside jokes than potentially confusing dialogue. The jokes work pretty well, and the back and forth between the characters is genuinely fun to watch. The music is the standard fair and while I kind of love the Shakira gazelle as a character (though Colombian accent equals gazelle is a confusing connection), “Try Everything” is not a great song. It works as a background piece the first time they play it but I think it holds the movie back rather than pushing it forward to ultimate greatness.
The animation is expertly done, with great texture on the fur and clothing, tons of diversity in animal movement and fantastic use of color to really differentiate areas and characters. Even the designs for the clothes themselves speak a lot to the thought that went into the film. It’s just gorgeous to watch all around, way nicer than the “let’s-blue-tone-everything” Frozen.
Overall, the film deserves its 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. It is clever, sincere, and deals with an increasingly important and difficult subject matter in a way that makes it understandable without lacking subtly. The world building is thoughtful and inspired, the characters have excellent chemistry, and it’s so creative that I would wholeheartedly go see a sequel. Disney is starting giving Pixar a real run for it’s money…if they don’t screw up Moana, that is.
– Excellent characters
– Strong dialogue
– Excellent concept and execution.
– Shakira’s song is just passable.