Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush’ Zootopia -or Zootropolis if you’re in the UK- follows plucky idealistic young Rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) as she tries to be taken seriously in a world that constantly underestimates her.
Zootopia/Zootropolis is a more complicated film than it seems on the surface. From the beginning it looks like it will follow the standard underdog -or Rabbit- who will prove herself despite everything in the world being stacked against her doing that. There is an element of that to the narrative but it feeds into a larger and more complex story that works as a commentary on society in general.
The title of the film, Zootopia/Zootropolis is also the name of the city where most of the story takes place. On the surface it looks like the perfect world as predatory animals live in harmony with those that were once their prey. There are different districts such as the Rainforest and Tundra that offer habitats for those with particular requirements so that a society can be built without climate being a limitation.
Judy is the perfect character to explore that world as she comes from outside of it with only a naive view to fuel her expectations. She expects it to be the perfect place where anyone can arrive and be what they want to be. To an extent she’s right but Zootopia is much more real than she thinks it will be. Politics and prejudice prevent progress from being made in the way that it perhaps should. She is dismissed because she is small and “cute” so really has to work to earn the respect that larger animals command by default.
This is exemplified by her boss Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) saddling her with parking duty which isn’t regarded as being “real” police work. Despite that she approaches the job with boundless enthusiasm and makes sure that she does double the work expected of her before half the day is over in a naive attempt to prove herself capable for more challenging tasks. Of course the world doesn’t work that way and her exemplary effort isn’t recognised.
As you would expect her fortune changes when she stumbles upon a missing person case that leads her to uncover a much larger issue that affects the entire city down to its core. I won’t go into details as I’ve already summarised the film enough but sufficed to say it is a really powerful exploration of how society appears to work but still has underlying prejudice that stop things from progressing the way it should.
As well as having a romanticised view of a place she has never been, Judy is a good example of that prejudice in action as it is established from early on that she is wary of Foxes. There is no rational reason for this but she naturally mistrusts them because of a quirk in her biology left over from the evolutionary process. She is even seen to be talking the talk in terms of being tolerant but when tested she completely assumes the worst. Her prejudice is tested when she meets Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) who initially proves her point in terms of being what she naturally expects from a Fox but through getting to know him she realises that individuals are more complicated than labeling suggests. This is a very effective point to make in modern society as many of us will have seen this happen and perhaps unconsciously been guilty of it ourselves.
As a message for kids it’s a really good one as it subconsciously prepares them to expect to see the same things when they start to experience the world as it really is. It will also help teach that people should be judged on their own merits rather than how they are perceived by outsiders. It’s just the sort of subtle brainwashing that I like films aimed at children to do. When positive messages like this are being shown to kids in allegorical ways then that can only be a good thing especially if it helps inform later life choices.
As a viewing experience this film works really well. The whole design of the world is excellent and the animation is stunning. I found the “whodunit” story to be compelling and really easy to follow with each revelation adding further intrigue to it. The whole thing moves along at a rapid pace but not so fast that the meat of the story is lost. Much of the narrative slows down to really explore the ideas and keeps the character relationships as the primary focus.
The central relationship between Judy and Nick works really well. There is a playfulness to their interactions that works really well and the vocal performances by Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman are constantly believable. Both characters are nuanced and likeable in their own ways while remaining functioning parts of the world they inhabit.
Other vocal performance are note perfect as well. J.K. Simmons projects a gruff authority as Mayor Lionheart who would rather hide problems than actually deal with them. Idris Elba is often genuinely intimidating as Chief Bogo and Nate Torrence is absolutely hilarious as enthusiastic Cheetah Clawhauser. Thankfully he isn’t used often enough to become irritating so the film strikes a good balance.
Generally this film doesn’t really put a foot wrong but sometimes the balance between world-building and the story being told isn’t quite right. There are points in the film where the story doesn’t move as time is being spent establishing the world the characters inhabit. This isn’t a bad thing as such but there are occasional moments where it feels like the story being told and the setting are two different things. Such moments are rare but they do happen and my enjoyment was barely hampered by them.
An excellent film that offers a powerful commentary on casual prejudice in society. The city of Zootopia is a world that is exceptionally well built with colourful characters inhabiting it. There is a good balance between world building and focusing on the central relationship between the two main characters as well as the “whodunit” case they are working on. At times the story grinds to a halt to give more information on how society works but such instances are rare. I would definitely say this numbers among Disney’s finest animated efforts.
- excellent world-building
- great characters
- powerful ideas intelligently explored
- rare instances of the story grinding to a halt to establish more about society