Boy, is Zootopia a direct shot of unabashed liberalism. Disney Animation’s latest in-house creation (not a Pixar production that Disney distributes) is more fervent about its ideology than just about any other animated film in recent memory… and likely further back than that. There’s always a “message” involved in many of these family-oriented animated films, packaging narrative with theme in a way that speaks outwardly to the kids and is sneakily subversive for the grown-ups. Pixar has forever been a master of the format, but Disney proper has caught up to a certain degree in recent years (think Bolt, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen). Typically the message is more general in its plea for humanism – even if the “humans” in question are anthropomorphized animals or objects. But Zootopia is a new breed: brightly-colored family animation that takes on issues of racial profiling, fear culture, and law enforcement’s abuse of power.
Yep, you read that right. The film’s narrative taps directly into the hottest of hot button issues, vicious divides in our culture that aren’t particularly lessened in their impact just because this stuff is being enacted by bunnies and foxes and sloths. I mean, it’s cuter, but it feels a little hardboiled nevertheless. Strictly in terms of filmmaking discipline, it’s a little on-the-nose, too direct, overt about messaging when it could be more veiled or capably nuanced. But on the other hand, why shouldn’t art kick cultural ills in the gut? In a way, its bluntness is refreshing.
The film also places a female lead at the center of this topical maelstrom, which is like the cherry on top. Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is a trailblazer of sorts. She’s a diminutive rabbit from simple, gentile “Bunnyburrow” holding her own among bigger, tougher beasts in the world of law enforcement in Zootopia, which is precisely what it sounds like – a beatific city of seeming perfection, a melting pot of mammals in which everything functions in seeming harmony. But, of course, there’s something sinister at work behind the scenes. A series of encounters with slick thief Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman) – a literal sly fox – leads meter maid Judy (her small stature leaves her relegated to the simple, safer role in the police force) down a rabbit hole of potential police corruption, as the “wild animals” within Zootopia seem to be reverting to their “natural instincts,” i.e. they are going rabid and wreaking havoc.
Judy and Nick uncover a seeming conspiracy in which the upper ranks of Zootopia law enforcement may be purposely shining a light on these “natural instincts” in order to suppress certain species and create a culture of fear within Zootopia. So essentially the police department and local government are working actively against various “races” and creating a disharmonious wedge to keep the community wrapped around its powerful finger. Pretty direct, eh? I wouldn’t be surprised if earlier drafts included shootings of innocent marmosets. And make no mistake: corruption and death lurk at every turn in Zootopia, which functions as a neo-noir with a top layer of warm fuzzies and frequent injections of goofy kid humor. The screenplay, by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, with story contributions from Wreck-It Ralph’s Rich Moore and Frozen’s Jennifer Lee, is more explicitly ambitious in its brooding themes than any other recent American animated feature. And not just the boundless creative ambition of other recent Disney efforts; this is a realist film, even in its clear allegorical presentation.
Such ambition results in something of a messy narrative that attempts to cover almost too much ground – and in so doing, clocks in at 108 minutes, epic length for an animated feature. But Zootopia is fascinating to witness, a film unafraid to venture into polarizing thematic terrain and uncharacteristically blend genres in order to reach that destination. I look forward to the sequel, when Judy and Nick lead citizens in an uprising against “Drumpf,” the megalomaniacal hippo, who wants to encase the confines of Zootopia inside an oppressive wall.