The concept for Disney’s newest animation is so aggressively suited to the Mouse House’s anthropomorphic proclivities, it is perplexing that it took the idea so long to reach the screen. The story takes place in a realm entirely populated by animals. Humans do not exist. Harmony is ensured, as we learn early on in the comedy adventure, since this universe has no food chain: the barriers between predator and prey have collapsed, and somehow, all the animals just munch on the same junk food that humans do. All of the creatures also go to school, look forward to the working world and wear clothes. Many of them also raise a family, although there is a noticeable lack of inter-species mingling.
As animated stories without people tend to go, the animals eventually turn into extended metaphors for our regular human behaviour. That is a big comedy boon, as well as a dramatic impediment, to Disney’s Zootopia (Rating: B-). Kids and their parents will find no shortage of delightful sequences for their amusement, while the animation is dazzling without ever being showy. For instance, nobody ever points out that the insignia on the back of Judy’s sleek cell phone is a carrot.
Unlike certain animated titles from DreamWorks that pack in the references to popular culture, many of the puns glide by in the background. (Well, except for the few nods to Frozen that this critic counted.) Zootopia probably has more value on home video than as a theatrical experience. However, the various metaphors in play become muddled during the film’s second half; sometimes, one message of tolerance for your fellow man (or mammal) is more effective than three.
Before it descends into speechifying, Zootopia is a brisk detective story. The film’s tiny heroine, Judy Hopps (voiced with beaming pride by Ginnifer Goodwin) is the only one of her 270 siblings to dream of life beyond her country farm. She, ahem, hops onto the train to the titular metropolis once she lands a job on the city’s police force – the first for a bunny, and not a surprise when one considers her diminutive size. (Idris Elba is the voice of her captain, a brutish water buffalo.)
Despite the adversity needed to graduate from the top of her class, Judy is delegated to traffic duty, where she roughs up against a confidence man, a “sly fox” named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman, smart-alecky as usual). Eventually, the new arrival in town needs a bit of help from the street-smart fox to solve a crime about some missing Zootopians.
The interplay between Nick and Judy is dynamic, with each character getting moments to wrest power over the other – this struggle involves a running gag with a carrot that doubles as an audio recorder – and stand on their own two legs. (In Zootopia, none of the characters move like they do in the animal kingdom.) The central mystery’s scope eventually encompasses the city’s boroughs of many different climates, from rainforest to tundra.
For a film with such conceptual ambitions, though, there isn’t a lot of world-building. The two screenwriters and seven (yes, seven) story contributors do not bother to explain why animals need to live in an appropriate habitat temperature but can function just fine in the main city centre. Also, why is the music on the radio from undisguised human artists? It might have taken too much time to go into the intricate details of Zootopia’s urban planning, although we are left with much to wonder.
Still, a few of the locales around town are inspired. The film’s funniest scene takes place at an animal nudist society, a self-reflexive poke at the laws of this alternative universe where predators and prey are often fully clothed. A quick scan through a museum toward the end gives us hints at how the species have evolved, but one may need to hit a pause button to excavate further treasures.
There’s a lot to admire about this zippy, smartly structured, occasionally hilarious animated adventure, co-directed by Tangled’s Byron Howard and Wreck-it Ralph’s Rich Moore. But it’s hard to not acknowledge the, ahem, elephant in the room. The film tries to pack in messages about acceptance and prejudice, but its metaphor doesn’t quite work. Without spoiling too much, the film relies on mistrust between the predators and the prey – an ancient ideology that still resonates years later.
There is an issue, though, with conceptualizing that predators have no reason to rely on their most primitive instincts. This metaphor becomes even more off-kilter, and potentially racially insensitive, when one considers what the predators would align with in contemporary American society. (And, let’s be clear: the values the film espouses are Western, such as Judy’s dream to rise from nothing and stake her claim in whatever field she desires.)
Beyond the iffy metaphor, the messaging is fuzzy. Judy tries to be virtuous and prove that one can transcend their social trappings, but too much of Zootopia’s joke count relies on stereotyping the animals to abide by a certain human quality. In one scene, the desk workers at the local DMV are sloths, a giddy joke that lands but also relies on one trait routinely repeating itself. In another scene, a corrupt body in town turns out to be exceptionally close to filmic depictions of mobster Italians. The list goes on.
One of the more refreshing characters in the film is Clawhauser (Nate Torrence), a leopard who works as a secretary at the police headquarters. Although he has the stature of a large, husky predator, Clawhauser has a poor diet and dreams of being onstage with Gazelle, a pop sensation voiced by Shakira. One would hope, though, that a film so insistent on smoothing the barriers between animal and human would have had more ambitions with fluid animal identities.