The stakes must be high for Disney filmmakers. After decades of creating instant classics and cultural touchstones, it has become an expectation for audiences that every time you walk into a Disney movie, you’ll get the full package: a beautiful looking film that’s funny, poignant, relatable and carries a valuable lesson for the children in the audience. Disney’s latest animated feature, Zootopia, fulfills that expectation and then some.
Zootopia takes place in an alternate reality in which humans don’t exist, and in their place animals have evolved to develop complex, human-like societies. All species live as one, predator and prey alike – or so it ought to be. But just as in ours, the world of Zootopia is rife with stereotypes and prejudice about different species that bubble just beneath society’s surface. Determined not to give a shit about the expectations of her species, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) decides she will become the very first bunny cop – cue training montage. Despite graduating police academy as the top of her class, Hops struggles to be taken seriously by her peers. In a bid to get some real police work done despite the resistance of buffalo Police Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), she enlists the help of a wily fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), to solve one of dozens of mysterious cases of missing predators. The conspiracy uncovered over the course of the investigation challenges everything she believed about the nature of predators and prey, law enforcement and the government.
The message of this movie is extremely significant, and pretty sophisticated for a kid’s movie about a talking bunny. The predator-prey relationship is a clear analogy for race relations (though there are also some undercurrents of gender politics at work in her difficulty in gaining the respect or validation of her colleagues), and one would assume the obvious path would be to pit the tenacious Hops, determined to rise above stereotypes, against people determined to put her in her place, and watch her defeat them and succeed. This isn’t where Zootopia goes. Instead, Zootopia takes Hops’ relatability and turns it on the audience: Hops herself is the one who ends up making ignorant statements about predators, and needs to confront and overcome her own internalized prejudice to set things right. Ultimately this is a far more powerful and important message than just “prejudice is bad”. Zootopia asks the audience member who already believes that prejudice is bad to continue to question and interrogate the more insidious, internalized beliefs that can slip through a well-meaning mindset. Interestingly, despite the fact that Hops faces discrimination in the workforce for being a prey animal and that the city’s mayor is a lion (J. K. Simmons), we later learn that prey far outnumber predators in the City of Zootopia, and power can shift surprisingly easily. This nuance highlights the fact that just because one is subject to stereotyping, they are not necessarily free from privilege or bigotry.
There is so much detail to take in from this movie. It’s a film-lover’s film, packed with references that no child would know – including a delightful Godfather homage and animal versions of Walt and Jesse from Breaking Bad. It’s extremely topical, with many scenes feeling like clever recreations of current affairs and a vibe that you could read something political in every element. It’s also just wildly beautiful. The landscapes are gorgeous, and the characters are exquisitely detailed – I desperately wanted to pat the sheep in this movie, they were so fluffy. There are a few elements I was left wondering about: what do the predators eat? Why can Hops still basically operate outside the law? Is Tommy Chong really in this kid’s movie? How is Jason Bateman so charming even when you can’t see him?
There are also some problematic elements to the politics here – it’s certainly questionable to draw a metaphor about race relations in which you encode minorities as predators. But ultimately, Zootopia is another in a long line of Disney movies that really do have it all. The cinema might have been packed with kids, but the film is embedded with a message for children and adults alike that couldn’t be more relevant or timely.