Disney’s Surprising And Arresting Buddy Comedy
Expectations in regard to Disney’s latest animated feature, Zootopia, are likely rooted in two things:
1. The fact that it is a Disney animated feature about talking animals.
2. Hilariously effective trailer which tells a single, well-executed joke involving a sloth working the desk at a DMV-like service building and the rabbit police officer who needs him to hurry up. Just a single scene, allowed to play out as a “Slow Talkers of America” gag. That trailer, which ran before Star Wars: The Force Awakens, promised a sharp, universally funny experience.
Zootopia itself, however, is something different. Most any baggage associated with the story traditions of Disney animation can be set aside. The only such trope rearing its head is the relatively modern one of the empowered female lead character. Aside from that, Zootopia is a buddy cop picture, for the most part more clever than funny. It is also built upon a foundation of some of the sharpest social commentary we’re likely to see in any film all year.
Grown-ups with a mind for metaphor will be unable to miss the ethnically and racially driven construct of the entire affair. With its contemporary anthropomorphic animal world divided into respective majorities and minorities of prey and predators, (90% versus 10%, as in actual nature,) the story takes as full advantage as it can (for a Disney film) in terms of exploring certain inherent genetic and cultural divides.
Never mind that the world of Zootopia is built upon the conceit that the predator citizens of this fully functioning animal city have long since given up their savage ways – The filmmakers are keen on imparting the fact that just beneath the “I’m okay/you’re okay” surface of every day life, the populace has a long way to go in terms of fully understanding and embracing their differences.
“Good” characters, even our main character, say and do things that don’t jive with the multiracial worldview they espouse. For some viewers, it could be uncomfortable. The real-life parallel of the eventual plot revelation is like something out of The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. There could even be an argument that equating certain real life minorities to a character subset that has “given up their savage ways” is itself inherently racist. Or, it could be said that we all come from different brokenness, just as every character in this movie is shown to be internally flawed.
If this sounds like an unexpectedly heavy load for a Disney family comedy, it is. At nearly two hours, the juggling act of police procedural, character drama, world building, and heavy duty social allegory does begin to struggle under the weight of its elements. It’s to the great credit of directors Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) and Byron Howard (Tangled) that it never crumbles.
As a parent who’d just experienced the film with my young children, I emerged a bit blindsided, yes, but also anticipating a Zootopia 2. I was less ready for whatever questions about why our hero bunny and rookie police office new to the big city, Judy Hopps (voiced well by Ginnifer Goodwin), doesn’t inherently trust her new friend the cunning fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman, also spot-on), even after he’s proven himself reliable.
She’s an over-achiever from a small town, unable to get a career break as the first bunny police officer in her new home of the bustling Zootopia, a previously idealized melting pot that isn’t as perfect as it seemed from afar. She espouses perfectly liberal diatribes to others about accepting predators as equals; yet she also carries a can of fox repellent, just in case. All of this, and far more, is directly addressed.
In my opinion, the issues the film raises, and how it raises them, aren’t at all toxic to the realm of “family entertainment”, which typically tends to present diverse characters interacting in innocuously post-racial groupings. That said, my own kids have yet to raise these questions in regard to Zootopia. They are, however, still talking about the characters, reliving the plot, and retelling the jokes. In short, they are fans. One day, the rest will click. In a good way.
The quality of the animation, although consistently passable, never really manages to impress. Perhaps this can be chalked up to the sheer glut of similar looking computer generated talking animal comedies in the past decade: The Wild. Over the Hedge. The Nut Job. All the Madagascar movies. The list goes on.
The concepts in Zootopia, though – the entire subset of miniature buildings and houses for the mouse part of town, or animalized advertising spoofs glimpsed in the background (Preyda handbags, “Just Zoo It”) for instance – are positively amusing. Under the burden of the sometimes slow plot (why are certain predatory citizens reverting to their savage ways?), there’s a spark, a creative enthusiasm, that is magnetic.
Although Zootopia is no modern Disney masterpiece, it’s also a case in which instincts may prove misleading. Which, in this film, seems to be the point.