Disney’s Zootopia is a witty and zippy family film, part police procedural, part fast-moving farce, that manages to bring up some weighty political and personal themes without getting bogged down in them.
The premise is that mammals have evolved beyond their “animal” ways and have built a civilisation where predator and prey live side by side, although not in complete harmony.
Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a country rabbit with dreams of becoming a cop in the big city. Her parents, Bonnie (Bonnie Hunt) and Stu (Don Lake), are less than enthused by the idea, preferring Judy to stay in the safety of their rural life. Judy is accepted into Zootopia’s police academy, thanks to Mayor Leodore Lionheart’s (J.K. Simmons) “mammal inclusion initiative”, and through hard work and ingenuity graduates at the top of her class.
But on arriving in the bustling metropolis, full of all manner of mammals from tiny mice to massive elephants, Judy finds that the reality is a bit different from what she had expected. The gruff, cynical water buffalo police chief Bogo (Idris Elba, channeling pretty much every police chief in cinema’s history) has no time for a tiny bunny cop. He’s got bigger problems, like the unexplained disappearance of 14 predators from all across the city. So Officer Hopps gets traffic duty, and dedicates herself to writing as many tickets as possible.
While on the beat, she spots a shifty fox, Nicholas P. Wilde (Jason Bateman) making his way into an elephant ice-cream store. At first Judy thinks he’s up to no good, but Nick claims that he’s just after a Jumbo pop (an elephant-sized ice-block) for his little boy, a fennec fox who wants to be an elephant when he grows up. Judy helps out, but later on in the day discovers that Nick is not a doting parent, but a con artist with a sophisticated scam.
On her second day Judy catches a thieving weasel, but in the process causes chaos, leading an enraged Bogo almost to suspend her. Angering him even more, Judy volunteers to take on one of the missing mammal cases, that of the otter Emmett Otterton, whose wife (Octavia Spencer) won’t leave the police alone. Bogo reluctantly accepts, under political pressure from the sheep Assistant-Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate), but on the condition that Judy resign if she hasn’t cracked the case in 48 hours.
Judy sees Nick in the last photo of Otterton, and tracks him down, blackmailing him into helping her by secretly recording him confessing to tax evasion with her carrot pen recorder. What follows is a hardboiled police procedural, and fast-moving farce, that reveals varying levels of corruption in Zootopia’s establishment and threatens to break apart the city’s fragile harmony.
A lot of the genius of Zootopia is in its attention to visual detail and world-building – Lemming Brothers Bank, Zuber, Targoat, etc – crafting a fictional reality without humans that nonetheless echoes our world. The script is sharp and cinematically literate, with references to Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, buddy cop movies and such conspiracy-laden private-eye noirs as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), as well as many of Disney’s own animated classics. It has something in it for everyone – although very young audiences may find it too intense.
Zootopia is a much more sophisticated film than it first appears, perhaps more sophisticated than the filmmakers intended. They have explicitly stated that they started with the story and did not consider the real-world implications till much later.
Its central device – that of walking talking human-like animals – means that it cannot be reduced to a simple allegory. To reduce it to being about race relations – as many commentators seem to do – is absurd. It is certainly about the dangers of stereotypes and the overcoming of prejudice – and also its political manipulation – but the way it deals with this is much more complex.
Animals are still conditioned by their biology, as is repeatedly shown throughout the film – slow-moving sloths at the Department of Motor Vehicles, rapidly multiplying rabbit populations, and so on – and going against it requires immense effort, as well as millennia of evolution.
The film suggests that we are not trapped by the accidents of our birth, but that going beyond those accidents is not easy. It also directly challenges the notion that if we want something badly enough, we can have it, making it clear that achieving anything requires hard work.
Judy arrives in the city with big dreams and a naive idealism, unable to accept that others might think differently to her. But her experiences there make her realise that “real life is more complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker”. Zootopia itself is more complicated than it seems, but is as entertaining as its trailers promise.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).