It’s been a good few years for Disney animation, it is fair to say. When it was announced that the industry giant was taking over Pixar, one might have been forgiven for thinking that the cartoon stakes would be handled by their new acquisition from then on out. But, while Disney reaped the benefits of Pixar’s offerings over the last ten years, they also strove to maintain their own proud record in the genre, and boy has there been some humdingers: Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6 and the license to print money phenomenon that was Frozen.
Disney’s own animation studios are not ones to rest on their laurels then, and the year after Pixar went for broke on two films for the first time, cleaning up in animated awards categories in the process, Disney themselves is biting back. And it’s a heavy hitter too: an CGI animated tale that weaves racial allegory into the all too common plot device of talking animals. Did the combination work, or have Disney gone too far in their bid to maintain relevancy?
In a world where carnivores and herbivores have evolved to live together, rabbit Judy Hopps (Gennifer Goodwin) travels to the big city of Zootropolis, seeking to become the first rabbit police officer. There, in a desperate effort to prove herself to doubting Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) she launches into an investigation of missing predators and animals gone “savage”, with the help of mostly unwilling fox con-artist Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). I caught a screening of Zootropolis at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.
These kind of Disney films always have their allegory – it’s not hard to spot the LGBT subtext in much of Frozen for example – but I was taken a bit aback by the extent of it in Zootropolis, which hits the racial issue hard from start to finish, in its depiction of a world where the divide between the majority herbivores and minority carnivores bears an uncomfortably close relation to the real world, especially parts of the United States. Indeed, if Zootropolis has a serious flaw, it’s that the allegory ends up swamping the story and the universe on display.
But only at certain moments. At others, in fact most of the production, what we see is an intelligent and deep examination of racial prejudice in the form of a talking animals cartoon movie, a childish method of asking serious questions. Let’s just get down to brass tacks: the predators of Zootropolis are a stand-in for the African-American community of the United States as far as I can see, with their treatment mirrored by the way that the herbivore dominated infrastructure and politics of Zootropolis treats its carnivores, a minority viewed with, at best, deep-seeded suspicion, and at worst as creatures capable of savage violence at the drop of a hat.
References to events like Ferguson come handily when we see a herbivore media and political class act as if predators are a clear and present danger to society that need to be fought back against and violently controlled. And, in a look at the inherent fallacy of “nature vs nurture” arguments when it comes to racial stereotyping, this constant discrimination ends up being a closed loop of prophecy fulfilment, as predators like Nick, tired of attempting to conform to the herbivore standard of society that has such disdain for his efforts, decides to be the “sly” con-man and criminal that everyone already thinks he is destined to be. As stated, most of the time Zootropolis’ approach to this comes off as daring and clever, but there are sections, especially in the last act, when things get taken to a ridiculous extreme.
Getting beyond this pre-dominant theme, Zootropolis also takes the time, sometimes briefly, to look at other surprisingly deep topics for the genre and even the studio. The glass ceiling for women in certain occupations, through Hopps’ dream of becoming a police officer that is blocked at every turn, the nature of male-on-female aggression through some of her earlier experiences and later interactions with male superiors, and a look at the seeming inevitability that people of different backgrounds can’t live together peacefully…or maybe they can. Zootropolis is a film that isn’t the slightest bit interested in presenting a world where all is childlike glee and wonder: it is not a film that is contrasting its jokes and themes for kids and adult, separate but equal, but one that is mixing everything together. It is a rare Disney film, though they are becoming more and more common I suppose, that is not interested in talking down to its core audience, but instead wants to include them in the wider conversation.
However, having spent the first part of this review talking about the message, I should probably talk about the actual film. The story is, in itself, fairly boilerplate, the country rookie trying to make it in the big city, mixing in with the well-worn odd couple/buddy cop formula. Think Troy McClure’s Handle With Care, or 48 Hours, subtly referenced. But the basics of the plot, whose guts consist of solving a fairly simple mystery whose outcome is something you’ll probably see coming from a mile off, is overwhelmed by the deeper points being made, but elevated by the quality of universe and the quality of character. It gets noir very fast, but never really threatens to breakout into an all-time great Disney narrative.
Hopps is a delight for sure. She’s a true “Kaylee” character, if you’ll allow me the reference, a bubbling fountain of idealism, optimism and good vibes, whose determination to succeed and triumph against constant adversity comes off as endearing rather than aggravating, as it so easily could have. Zootropolis really needed this kind of naïve character, so unused to the truly gargantuan racial tension in the big city, to act as an effective audience surrogate for seeing why the situation is so wrong.
And she has a somewhat effective foil in the form of Nick Wilde. I say somewhat because Wilde succeeds as he is written and presented, a victim of Zootropolis’ ingrained bigotry who has decided to simply make the best of it, even if it means playing to type. He’s a smooth talking shyster, who comes off as charming as he is sleazy. The heart of gold coming out is inevitable, but Zootropolis does well in taking its time with this progressions, and never letting Wilde lose his bite.
But, where Hopps is improved greatly by the exuberant VA performance of Goodwin, Wilde suffers from Jason Bateman’s somewhat aimless work, the usually stellar comedy actor sounding rather bored and unenthusiastic at moments (you might also wonder why such an obvious reference to under-privileged African-Americans is being voiced by the whitest actor in Hollywood as well). Bateman’s a fine performer, and playing the cynical straight-man to Hopps zaniness should be well-worn territory, considering his time on Arrested Development. But VA just isn’t his bag it would seem.
He isn’t the only one struggling a bit here. While it’s an inevitable that big-name actors and actresses will be cast to do VA work in these kind of productions, for notoriety and marketing purposes if nothing else, it’s clear that the jump between live action and the soundbooth is one that only a select few can actually make. Idris Elba is patently unsuited for VA based on this, JK Simmons is stuck in J. Jonah Jameson mode and Shakira probably should have just stuck to singing (“Try Everything” is a decent theme). They aren’t fully representative – Nate Torrance, Jenny Slate and Alan Tudyk do great work, and Maurice Le Marche’s turn as Godfather-esque crimeboss is a real stand-out – but I did feel like too much of Zootropolis’ cast was humdrum at best and distractingly blasé at worse.
At least the writing, from a myriad of Disney regular but most notably Frozen’s Jennifer Lee and WALL-E’s Jim Reardon, is a good effort. From the list of writers, you’d be worried it would be a designed by committee, multiple re-writes mess, but instead it is sharp, witty and engaging at all times, treading a fine line between observational humour inspired by the universe at hand and effective parody of well-known tropes – like any section involving the aforementioned Corelone stand-in. Going beyond the expected visual humour of a city where lemmings are businessmen and “nude” animals are a source of social mortification, Disney’s team hits it out of the park, with some lines, like a crooks desperate plea of “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse…money!”, a lengthy but hilarious section involving the literal sloths at the Department of Motor Vehicles or Hopps’ awkward explanation of why it isn’t cool for a leopard to call her cute: “You probably didn’t know, but a bunny can call another bunny ‘cute’, but when other animals do it, that’s a little…”
It’s probably superfluous to say that Disney Studios has knocked it out of the park, again, in terms of visuals and universe creation, but I’ll say it again anyway, for the record. Zootropolis is a glorious medley of colour and form throughout its running time, in character and architecture, that is singularly uninterested in giving a firm foundation to its world where humans have apparently long departed the scene, but instead wants to just jump right into it: the prologue explanation comes in the form of a bloody school play, played for jokes and dismissed quickly.
Instead, Disney simply invites you to immediately shut off your disbelief and relax into its surroundings, trusting that Disney, of all studios, knows what it is doing. A love letter to the animal kingdom and to the mystery/noir genres, the animation of Zootropolis is able to astound, in an era when animation of this type struggles to keep audiences wowed. Lessons have been learned, a lot, from Pixar in the last few years, and that is very evident here. The somewhat limited, colour wise, palette of Frozen, is discarded in favour of something much more like the vibrant metropolis of Big Hero 6: this creation results in some wonderful sequences, not least a footchase that traverses the various scales of Zootropolis’ environs.
We are living in a world where a man who casually dubs all Mexican’s racists and suggests that Muslims should be registered is, at time of writing, in a good position to be one of America’s two main Presidential candidates. Given that, and the continuing racial discrimination going on in the US and all over the world, Zootropolis comes as a breath of fresh air, a positive portrayal of people and world where racial realities do not have to be the defining thing that they so frequently are.
If for no other reason, I would recommend Zootropolis. But it also has a decent plot, great writing and Disney’s spectacular visual style. Some of its VA performances are a let-down, it’s a tad too long for its own good and at moments the larger allegory being employed threatens to overtake the entire experience. But it is that very allegory, on racial issues, gender issues and social harmony, that elevate Zootropolis into a higher echelon of animated movies. Like Inside Out with its thoughts on mental health and depression, I think that this is the kind of movie that everyone should see, because of what it says about us, our prejudices and our potential to move beyond them. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).