I recently had the pleasure of seeing Disney’s latest masterpiece, Zootopia. I don’t use the term “masterpiece” lightly - Disney has struck real gold with this movie. The art is fantastic, the message is perfect for its time, the humor is clever without being insulting, and the pacing of the plot is ideal.
I’m going to discuss big spoilers below the break, so here’s the tl:dr: if you haven’t seen Zootopia, go and see it. It’s worth every penny. Also, I don’t ship the fox and the rabbit.
To paraphrase the first teaser trailer for Zootopia, the movie takes place in a world where humans don’t exist and the whole range of land mammals evolved to sentience in their place. Although evolved for things like bipedal statures, the animals have retained their relative sizes to each other, so bears are still huge and rodents are tiny and so forth. Zootopia itself is a major animal city designed to contain as many environments as possible, namely the Sahara, arctic tundra, rainforest, and even a miniature suburb for mice, shrews, and other tiny rodents. While the city is generally built on a scale fit for elephants and rhinos, accommodations are made for smaller-scale critters on most buildings and public transportation. It’s a wonderful, inclusive place where anyone can be anything.
At least, such is the opinion of Judy Hopps, a bunny from the rural farming community of Bunnyburrows. Judy’s dream of joining the ZPD drives her childhood, and nothing slows her down, not even her parents’ constant passive-aggressive attempts to talk her into giving up the dream for something safe and normal like carrot farming. Judy enrolls in the police academy, where she’s dwarfed by the rhinos, bears, and other megafauna that typically join the ZPD, and despite a rough start against the physical obstacle courses that are not built to her scale, her never-say-die attitude coupled with an Affirmative Action policy pushed by Zootopia’s mayor, Leodore Lionheart, gets Judy onto the police force.
Judy happens to join up while the police are in the midst of a major case regarding the disappearances of fourteen mammals (“mammals” apparently being Zootopia’s go-to replacement word for “people.”), but the little bunny is relegated to parking duty despite her protests. While out on her rounds, Judy runs across a small-time con artist fox named Nick Wilde, who effortlessly outwits her attempts to pin an actual crime on him.
Determined to prove herself, Judy manages to get ZPD’s Chief Bogo to give her forty-eight hours to crack one of the big missing mammal cases - one Emmet Otterton - and she quickly determines that Nick was the last mammal to see Otterton. After finally finding something to stick to the fox, Judy gets him to assist in her investigation. Things start off pretty typical for a pairing of rookie cop and conscripted con artist, but the investigation soon leads to something much bigger than just a missing otter.
On the surface, Zootopia’s plot is nothing too original: it’s a Buddy Cop story about an idealistic newbie cop paired with a more experienced and cynical, yet good-hearted, criminal as they try to navigate a world full of hard-line police chiefs, mob bosses, politics, and society’s expectations. The main theme that drives the story and the characters is confronting and overcoming the stereotypes and ingrained racism (or classism, sexism, etc.) that permeate everything. In a world of talking animals that exist in every possible size category nature has produced and expectations about how certain species are supposed to act, prejudicial behavior is particularly rampant and breaking out of the mold is a tall order for anyone inclined to try.
The real charm in Zootopia is not its overall plot or its message, as valuable and timely as it is, but in its characters and the balance of humor and drama. Although the movie’s message is to not let stereotyping determine anyone’s destiny or place in society, a lot of the jokes are based on the stereotypical traits applied to animals in fiction. The difference between the “funny” stereotyping and the “bad” stereotyping is that the writers only selected traits that are obviously true and generally harmless to point out or subvert for the jokes. For instance, the reproductive efficiency of bunnies is brought up in at least three separate blink-and-you’ll-miss jokes - once by Judy Hopps herself - Officer Clawhauser is a fat, out of shape cheetah, and sloths being ridiculously slow-moving is used to great effect in the DMV scene. On the other hand, the “bad” stereotyping is always about traits that are either not physically inherent in the species (foxes aren’t naturally sly, shifty, or untrustworthy) or “guilt by association” (little bitty otters are lumped in with jaguars and wolves because they’re all carnivores).
The scene at the DMV is one of the best moments in the whole film for me because it is deliberately dragged out to emphasize how slow the sloths are, but not to the point of becoming annoying. After Judy’s shocked discover of just who staffs Zootopia’s Department of Mammal Vehicles (ah yes, animal puns, the second big source of the movie’s humor), we’re treated to several shots of the employees going about their business - stamping papers, stapling papers together, and taking a driver’s license photo - with characteristic slowness, and the camera does not move on to the next sloth until the current one has completed its action, leading to shots that last well over a minute each. Then Judy and Nick walk up to Flash’s counter, and Flash continues the slow-sloth theme by speaking slowly with long pauses between his words and… well, the scene makes up one of Zootopia’s trailers, so you can look it up if you haven’t seen it. The scene takes longer in the movie because Flash has a little more dialogue and they add in shot of him sloooooowwwlly tearing off the sheet of paper with the license plate info Judy was looking for. The timing is simply perfect, and Judy and Nick’s performances help sell it.
The story manages to move along briskly and fit in funny bits without wasting any screen time on pointless antics. Everything Judy gets herself into early in the movie pays off in some way later on. Her childhood scenes show her determination, proclivity for overselling a death act, and why she’d be inclined to buy into her parent’s distrust of foxes. As she’s chasing Duke Weaselton through Little Rodentia - a funny and well-choreographed sequence in its own right - she saves a shrew from being crushed by a giant donut statue, and that pays off when she and Nick are taken to the crime boss Mr. Big, and that scene, with all it’s Godfather-homage humor, pays off even later and comes around full circle with Weaselton. It’s a very good Chekov’s Gun sequence.
Judy Hopps is the idealistic rookie cop with dreams of helping the city - dreams that she’s too impatient to wait on. She balks at being assigned to parking enforcement her first day on the job, chalking it up to Chief Bogo not liking having to accept a “token bunny” on his force, but determines to prove herself by excelling at the assignment, and then leaping at any chance to do “real cop” work like chasing down a suspect or taking on the task of finding Mr. Otterton when nobody else can be spared. Judy has a natural knack for police work and picks up tricks quickly, but she’s still highly inexperienced with the world outside her rural hometown and harbors ingrained prejudices as much as anyone else in the movie. She’s looked down on by larger animals, and buys into the notions that foxes are dangerous and that predators in general have a disposition toward savagery.
Nick is the jaded con-man with a troubled past. He’s also an absolute goldmine of deadpan humor. He looks down on Judy not because she’s a bunny, or a bunny trying to do a rhino’s job, but because she’s a naive newcomer who needs to be shown how the world really works. It’s actually hard to tell exactly how much he’s deliberately wasting Judy’s time early in their partnership, when his only intention is to get the recording of his admission to unreported income, but he’s clearly enjoying Judy’s horror at the naturist resort and her frustration at the DMV and he does deliberately distract Flash with a joke. Once the pair discover their first clue that Emmet Otterton’s disappearance has a sinister explanation, Nick starts taking things more seriously, because underneath the sly trickster persona he’s built to play into society’s expectations of fox behavior, he’s still a boy scout who wants to buck tradition and make the world a little better. He stays an irrepressible tease to the bitter end, however. The only times he really stops cracking wise is when his life is in serious jeopardy or somebunny has broken his heart.
Nick and Judy make a wonderful pair once they warm up to each other and Judy starts returning his teasing in kind, but I do not interpret their last conversation in the movie as having romantic undertones. I say that for two reasons: I’m not a fan of interspecies relationships, particularly in cases where the reproductive viability of the couple is unclear, and I honestly don’t think there’s anything a romance between this fox and bunny could do to improve to their chemistry. They’re a pair of fast-talking, quip-trading cops who can switch from teasing one another to serious crime-busting at the drop of a hat. Do they need anything more?
Zootopia deals with racism and discrimination, but it presents it in a complex way. There’s no single group that’s totally oppressed by everyone else, and no group is innocent of discriminatory thoughts or actions toward another. The tension between predator-species and prey-species is what the Big Bad seeks to aggravate, but before the discovery of the missing mammals that tension is almost nonexistent in the goings-on on the characters. Instead of that generalized tension, we mostly see overt discrimination on a species-specific level: rabbits can’t be cops (Gideon Grey), foxes are dangerous and/or shifty (Judy’s parents), sloths can’t be fast (well, that one’s demonstrably true; Nick was mostly yanking Judy’s chain with that line). There’s also Judy’s discussion with Clawhauser about “cute-word privileges” in regards to bunnies, but part of me wonders if Judy just made that up to try and get ahead of being underestimated by her fellow cops. I don’t recall her getting upset at anyone else calling her cute, except perhaps Nick during her first attempt to arrest him, but she was already ticked off at him before he called her a cute meter maid and she didn’t escalate her annoyance at that. The dominant form of discrimination I picked up on before the savage predators became the top issue was size. Bigger animals seemed to have more respect and opportunity than smaller ones: aside from Judy, the smallest police officer I saw was a wolf, the mayor is a big ol’ lion, and Finnick the fennec fox can pass as a toddler because, to Zootopia in general, “tiny fox” always equals “baby fox.” On top of that, Bellwether’s encouragements to Judy always ran along the lines of “we little people” rather than “we prey species.” She only started talking “prey vs. pred” at the end when her scheme was exposed. Of course, Mr. Big and Bellwether prove that even the smallest creature can get into a top-level position, but seeing as his “top level” is mafia boss and she’s a domestic terrorist it doesn’t exactly do much damage to the size-ist condition of Zootopia’s legitimate hierarchies.
Still, you can’t fix every problem with societal discrimination in one fell swoop.
So, to summarize once again: Zootopia’s awesome. Awesome enough for a sequel or, better yet, a sequel TV series.