Directors: Byron Howard and Rich Moore
Cast: The voices of Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, J.K. Simmons, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira
MPAA Rating: (for some thematic elements, rude humor and action)
Running Time: 1:48
Release Date: 3/4/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 4, 2016
"I'm not just some token bunny," the rabbit heroine of Zootopia tells the chief of police, who has assigned her to parking meter duty. The rabbit graduated at the top of her class at the academy, and she is the first rabbit to ever make it on the city of Zootopia's police force. The only thing her animal colleagues notice, though, is her diminutive stature, as well as the fact that she, like all other bunnies, is incredibly cute. "Cute," by the way, is a term that one bunny can call another bunny, but when another type of mammal uses it, well, she, like all other bunnies, starts to feel a bit uncomfortable.
We may be talking about a bunny, but in case it isn't obvious yet, we're not really talking about a bunny. The film is part of a long tradition of allegorical fiction that uses animals as stand-ins for humans. Whether it be Aesop's fables or Animal Farm or any of the countless examples that could be included here, the point is that the animals show us silly humans our foibles. As the wily fox who joins the cop bunny puts it, "We may be evolved, but deep down, we are still animals." Since, in such stories, we're forced to see ourselves as no better than the less-evolved mammals on this planet, maybe the comparison will be enough of a kick to teach us a lesson about how to be better as human beings.
What's the lesson here, then? Well, it's a little complicated, although not in such a way that this delightful, clever story is unclear about what we're supposed to take away from it. It's complicated because it's dealing head-on—in that subversively indirect way that these animal-based tales do—with issues that aren't so easily defined and are far more difficult to resolve.
This is a film about gender and racial politics. It's a film about the way overtly systematic injustice becomes barely hidden systemic bias. It's a film about how women can do everything that men do but still get looked at as inferior. It's about how even the most tolerant people—sorry, animals—can hold beliefs about certain races—sorry, species—of their fellow man—sorry, mammal—that are just as backwards as the ones believed about them.
It's a film about prejudice. Yes, it's a bitter pill to swallow, and that's another reason why the screenplay by Jared Bush (credited as the co-director of the film) and Phil Johnston frames the story with animals. It is, after all, a film aimed at kids, so it might be more palpable of a message if they see it in such terms: a rabbit who is much smaller than her police colleagues and a fox who scares the bunny to some degree because, at one point in animal history, she would have been prey to his predator. The old attitudes persist to one degree or another, no matter how much progress has been made. They just show themselves in different ways.
Judy Hopps (voice of Ginnifer Goodwin), the bunny heroine, grew up in the rural area of Bunnyburrow (The population sign is a constantly increasing ticker). A school play informs us of the history of this world. Animals evolved to stand on their hindquarters, talk, and form an advanced society. They overcame the old dynamics of predator and prey, and now they all live together in relative harmony, with the metropolis of Zootopia as a shining example of how everyone can get along. When the young Judy announces that she wants to be a police officer, though, the audience is either stunned or amused.
She proves everyone wrong and sets off for Zootopia to start her new job—but not before taking a can of fox-repellant spray from her father (voice of Don Lake), who warns his daughter that she needs to be wary of that sly, shifty species. She's only slightly hesitant to accept the gift.
Judy's foil is Nick Wilde (voice of Jason Bateman), a fox who's an expert con artist. After reflexively reaching for her fox spray, Judy comes to believe that the fox is on the up and up, sticking up for him at ice cream shop run by elephants, who openly discriminate against Nick's species. It's an elaborate scam, though, and it leads her to chase him through the mouse borough of the city.
The city itself features a bevy of ingenious design choices from directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore, such as the way every district—a desert, a tundra, a rain forest—is climate-engineered (giant heaters for the desert sprinklers for the forest). A trip to the Department of Mammal Vehicles shows the place run by the only mammal that would keep it running at the proper pace. It's an obvious joke, yes, but it doesn't matter when the scene itself is as hilarious as it is here—filled with pregnant pauses and a shot of a worker figuring out the punch line to a joke in slow motion.
There's a nefarious plot in motion, involving a group of predators "going savage" without warning. The duo must contend with a buffalo police chief (voice of Idris Elba) who doesn't think Judy is fit for duty because she's a rabbit, a lion mayor (voice of J.K. Simmons) who would rather cover up the problems of the city than deal with them, and a mob leader named Mr. Big (voice of Maurice LaMarche) who is celebrating the day of his daughter's wedding. The real mastermind behind the scheme is elsewhere, and the motive for the plan is as old as it is still depressingly relevant: consolidating power by keeping these various groups of animals afraid of each other.
The heart of this fable, though, is in the relationship between Judy and Nick, each of whom has her or his own reason for distrusting the other, based on experiences that aren't too different if one looks at them in the right way. Zootopia argues that there is a right way to look at this world: The differences amongst these animals aren't a problem, but the belief that they are a problem is a big one. As much as kids need to learn that, adults could probably use the reminder, too.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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