Reviews: Zootopia

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I’ll admit, I have more mixed feelings about Zootopia than I’ve had for any other of the recent Disney animated features.

The plot is that in a world populated by anthropomorphized mammals, young bunny Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) dreams of being a police officer, but faces an uphill battle due to the fact that, well, she’s a rabbit in a world that is also populated by bears, moose, elephants, and so on and no one in their right mind would expect her to be able to do the job. Even after an affirmative action program puts her on the force, the literally bullheaded Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) regulates her to acting as a meter maid. Until, that is, a series of events puts her in pursuit of a mild-mannered otter who seems to have disappeared without a trace. Her only lead is a con-man fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman of Arrested Development fame), whom she manages to blackmail into helping her. Together they uncover a much deeper conspiracy: one that threatens to tear the city of Zootopia apart.

First, you should be aware that the film has a tediously politically correct mindset: it’s all about the wonders of diversity and accepting people who are different (physically, of course, since that’s the only kind of diversity that Hollywood likes), with no slightest concession granted to the idea that maybe physical differences actually do sometimes affect a person’s ability to, you know, perform certain jobs. Can’t have any of that, so anything that could be said against, say, a bunny being a cop is put down to simple bigotry (this makes even less sense when you consider that some characters are shown to have abilities and personalities based on their species: all the sloths are slow, for instance, and all the lemmings act in concert).

At one point Judy tells a little fox who wants to be an elephant to grow up and be an elephant if that’s what he wants. Um, what? Is that supposed to be inspiring? How does that make any sense at all? Wouldn’t a better message be to become the best fox he could be, since obviously he isn’t going to be an elephant no matter how badly he wants it?

As usual, the message is that in order to be a decent human being, it is necessary to shut your eyes to any reality that someone else considers inconvenient: an idiotic and harmful point of view. Or, if you don’t want to go that far, then the message is don’t prejudge people just because they’re different; a message that has been the mainstay of family (and other) entertainment for at least two decades now and which I could happily go the rest of my life without hearing again.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’m free to say that I liked the movie anyway.

Perhaps I can best explain this by comparing the film to Frozen, another popular Disney animated film saddled with a tediously PC theme. I didn’t like Frozen very much, though less because of the message it was trying to put across than for the fact that the story was simply a mess. The difference is that Frozen felt as though its PC theme was tacked on to a story that couldn’t survive it (the most glaring example being that making the Snow Queen a misunderstood, persecuted heroine instead of a complex villainess was a disastrous decision that utterly broke the story, but you can’t have the suggestion that changing who you are might be a good thing). In Zootopia, by contrast, the PC elements are built in, so to speak, and so allow the story itself to actually work. They’re still annoying, but the story and characters are good enough to carry over it.

In particular, I really liked the two leads, who had great chemistry and were both very likable people. Judy’s adorably enthusiastic (she reminded me of Amy Poehler’s character on Parks and Recreation), while Nick is amusingly cynical and charmingly roguish, though both are more complex than they initially appear. Their developing relationship was, in my opinion, the best part of the film and the source of much of the plot’s interest. That their initial dislike will eventually turn to affection is predictable, of course, but it’s the way it happens that is so well done, with them slowly growing more comfortable around each other through such things as beginning to laugh at each other’s jokes, unconsciously giving one another a hand, and just simply sharing moments and feelings with one another. It’s constantly engaging, and we really root for them to get together.

(The film is oblique about the nature of their relationship, perhaps because of the questionable propriety of having a romance between two different species, though you could certainly interpret it that way if you want. For my part, I say it’s a cartoon and they’re anthropomorphized enough: romance all the way).

Yes, there’s a predictable breakup and reconciliation, and it’s nowhere near as heart-rending as, say, the one in Wreck-It Ralph, but it works alright in the context of the story, and the chemistry between Judy and Nick is good enough that we go along with it (and the make-up scene is pretty adorable).

The other characters aren’t nearly as interesting, with the exception of the villain, whose identity I won’t reveal here, though I’ll admit to being surprised. Again, not as surprised as Wreck-It Ralph, but they threw enough twists and curveballs in that I genuinely did not see the true plot until near the end. He’s not going to be one of the great Disney villains, but for this story he worked perfectly (that said, we’ve had ‘secret villains’ for the past three or four Disney films, so I really hope they give it a rest for a while after this). Idris Elba is the predictably stubborn chief who doesn’t believe in Judy (again, no suggestion that he might have legitimate reasons for not wanting a bunny on the force: it’s just bigotry), but eventually comes to believe in her. There’s Nate Torrence as the overweight desk sergeant who is initially the only cop to treat Judy decently (because he’s fat, and hence is also ‘different’, see?). J.K. Simmons is the lion mayor, who’s a typically slimy politician, and Jenny Slate plays his put upon assistant (a sheep), who is one of Judy’s first allies. Disney’s own lucky-charm, Alan Tudyk, meanwhile, has a relatively small role as a weasel crook who is Judy’s first collar, and gets some laughs in the role. Bonnie Hunt and Stu Lakes play Judy’s parents, who exist primarily to step on her dreams in a well-meaning (and moronically heavy-handed) way, while Tommy Chong plays a stoned wildebeest at a ‘naturalist’s’ (read: nudist) club who gets some laughs out of his scene. All these characters basically do their jobs and are amusing enough, but none of them really stood out to me as especially interesting or memorable. Again, except the villain.

As for the humor, some of it worked, some of it didn’t. Among the flops, I thought the whole mob-boss sequence was the biggest. It’s not bad, it’s just really, really uninspired. The ‘Mr. Big’ joke was old when Get Smart did it (in its first episode), and having the whole scene be a take off of The Godfather was an obvious joke that didn’t really get a laugh out of me (the cartoon Phineas and Ferb had a Godfather gag that lasted about five seconds and was cleverer and funnier than anything here).

On the other hand, a lot of the animal gags were pretty funny, such as the way a group of lemmings all follow each other, or the hamster tubes dotting the rodent neighborhood (oh, and as a fan of kaiju films, the whole chase through the rodent town was one of my favorite parts of the film). One of my favorite jokes in the film was a throwaway gag involving a wolf cop going undercover. And the scene at the DMV run entirely by sloths, though almost completely spoiled in the trailers, nevertheless had me laughing out loud from beginning to end (you cannot go wrong with making fun of the DMV). Cute little details, like the carrot logo on the back of Judy’s phone, were a lot of fun as well.

That points to something kind of interesting: the very contemporary nature of the setting. The characters have smart phones, drive cars, discuss the latest aps and so on. At one point Nick even comments on a CD collection, wondering who uses those anymore. At another we see a table full of bootlegged DVDs, all of which have very familiar titles (speaking of which, one of my favorite lines comes courtesy of Chief Bogo: “Life is not some happy cartoon where you sing a song and magically all your dreams come true, so just let it go!”). It’s really a bit of a shock to see anthropomorphized characters in a Disney film in such a contemporary setting. This might end up dating the film in the future, but at the moment it’s kind of cute and definitely gives the movie its own quirky kind of flavor.

To return to the story, I really like the way the case proceeds. The characters make intelligent, reasonable deductions based on the evidence they find, and the film keeps moving at a fast pace; each time one problem is solved, it leads to another all the way up to the climax (again, contrast Frozen, where the story had no driving force to it but just sort of wandered about until it was time for the climax). This is leavened by some excellent action sequences, such as a really cool train chase, the infiltration and subsequent escape for a high-tech prison, and the aforementioned chase through the rodent neighborhood. The film doesn’t quite make full use of the animal nature of its stars (i.e. Nick never bites anyone, and considering her name Judy doesn’t do a whole lot of hopping), but it does make some use of them, and there’s a lot of good choreography going on. Though, again, considering the film is about the wonders of diversity, you’d think it would make some positive use of the actual differences, but it prefers to pretend they don’t exist.

On that subject, I think the movie would have felt more honest to me if they had actually shown Judy having problems with her job because of her size; perhaps she could have tried to arrest, say, a horse and found that that simply was not going to happen. Then she could have worked out a way to use what skills she had to her advantage, turning her real weaknesses into strengths. There is a little of that in a training montage showing her at the police academy, including what seemed to be an implication that her kicking ability would prove her secret weapon, but it never really comes into play again. All her problems on the job come from other people not believing in her, rather than from the reality of her situation. As it is, the question “well, what happens when she has to try and subdue an angry hippo or something?” simply remains unasked and unanswered (actually, whenever she does face off with a larger opponent, her response is to call in backup. Smart, but it doesn’t exactly convince me that the prejudice against her is misplaced).

At one point Chief Bogo tells her “it isn’t about how much you want it; it’s about whether you can do the job.” That’s a very good point, and one I wish the film had taken the time to actually address. Instead, it’s just glossed over as an excuse for his bigotry. Personally, I found myself on Bogo’s side more often than not: he’s saddled, for political reasons, with an officer who patently can’t perform a large part of her job, and if anything goes wrong, he’s probably going to get the blame. I would have liked to have seen this aspect of things emphasized more, if only to lend balance and make the story more convincing. As it is, Judy’s only real challenge (apart from the case itself) is overcoming prejudice: not overcoming her own obvious limitations, which, to me, seems like it would have made a much more interesting problem.

On the other hand, the prejudice against Nick seems more reasonable to me. I can definitely buy that, in a city of anthropomorphized animals, the herbivores would retain a fear of the predators. If anything, I think they might have emphasized this more by showing that the two groups tended to isolate themselves from one another, or that they had done so in the past. Apart from a few fleeting references (“Don’t they have any fox shops in your part of town?”) this doesn’t seem to be the case, except that, apparently, most people don’t trust foxes. Maybe someone could have mentioned that the mayor was the first predator elected (which would have reinforced the theme of Judy’s story)? Or perhaps someone could have mentioned a “predator neighborhood”? In any case, though they could have gone farther with it, I think Nick’s story is on much stronger grounds that Judy’s.

So, the story is well constructed, but upon shaky grounds. What else? Well, the world of the film is fantastic. The innumerable little gags and conceits used to build a modern society populated by animals are brilliant. I already mentioned the hamster tubes that the rodent population uses to get round (which result in some very funny gags), and then there are the various sized doors on the trains and public buildings, the different city boroughs corresponding with different environments, and so on. The various sized cars feature in some great gags (when Judy puts a ticket on a mouse’s car, it starts to blow away, taking the car with it), and the crowd scenes, with towering giraffes and elephants striding about, surrounded by milling crowds of every animal imaginable, are a visual feast.

My only real complaint about all this is that, again, I wish they had gone further. I wanted to see more about how the different animals use their different attributes to contribute to their great mishmash of a society. Like they could have had squirrels as traffic cops and seals as sailors, and have professional wrestling being done by elephants and rhinos, and fruit bats (who live in upside-down apartment complexes) acting as a taxi service for the rodent population, which inspires resentment form the larger animals since it means they have shorter commutes and…well, just all sorts of things. Imaginative as this film is, I think they could have done so much more with it. I kind of want there to be a sequel, just to explore this fantastic world a bit more (I’m especially curious as to what the whales, dolphins, and the like are doing).

And with all my complaints about the film’s theme, I will say that there is a nuance to its relentlessly PC worldview that I did like. In the reveal there comes a suggestion that oppressed minorities sometimes try to overcome prejudice, not by proving themselves, but by creating new and more virulent prejudices. I like this acknowledgment that oppressed minorities are not necessarily any more pure or incorruptible than anyone else, and that even the fight for equality can have a dark side.

In the end, my attitude towards Zootopia is similar to my feelings about, say, Parks and Recreation; a lot of the time I hate and despise what it has to say, but it says it with sufficient humor, charm, and talent that for the most part I can look past the message and enjoy the medium. It’s a cute, creative, funny, heartwarming story led by a fantastic pair of leads, and that’s usually enough, for me, to carry it past the unsavory message at the heart.

Final Rating: 3.5/5. A strong story, a fantastically realized world, and great lead characters all make for an enjoyable experience if you can stomach a nauseatingly PC message.

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