Anthropomorphized animals are the bedrock of animated Disney films. Starting with 1928’s Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse captured the popular imagination with his cute face and human personality. The popularity of talking animals continued onward through Robin Hood and The Lion King, but these films never considered world-building. The plot would inform animal behavior, not the other way around. Zootopia, the latest film from Walt Disney Animation Studios, has more in common with Orwell’s “Animal Farm” than previous cartoon they have produced. The film is highly allegorical, with an emphasis on what it would mean if mammals functioned in society together. In between clever gags and photorealistic animation, there is a sharp procedural about racial profiling. Yes, really.
Zootopia may have four directors, yet it never waivers from the specificity of its vision. Screenwriters Jared Bush and Phil Johnston imagine an integrated animal kingdom, one where predators and prey live in harmony (more or less). While animals have jobs, clothing, and infrastructure, there are an unspoken social strata that informs everyone’s station in life. The exception is Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit whose family is full of carrot farmers, but stubbornly pursues a career as a police officer instead.
Hopps graduates at the top the police academy – she’s their first rabbit graduate – and in a cruel ironic twist, her boss at the Zootopia Police Department (Idris Elba) is skeptical of her abilities, relegating her to parking duty. On her first day, she meets the fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a smooth talking con man (or “con fox”?). Anyway, after he tricks her, she realizes he’s a key witness to a string of mysterious disappearances. Wilde and Hopps team up, uncovering a vast conspiracy as they follow clues through Zootopia’s varied climates.
The first encouraging thing about Zootopia is Hopps’ character arc. She is a little like Ethan Hawke’s character from Gattaca: unwavering and determined, she refuses to let biology determine the ceiling of her life. The animators add detail to her face – especially her ears – so that we always know what she is thinking (the actors are well-chosen, and disappear into their roles so that no single actor stands out). On top of the strong character development, the film is full of clever world-building details. Many of them deal with animal size: there are doors on public transportation for huge elephants and tiny hamsters. Hopps chases a weasel through the mouse district, and they’re as tall as the neighborhood’s skyscrapers. There is a consistent internal logic here, and the filmmakers use their constrained premise as an opportunity for a steady stream of physical gags. Aside from the incredible sloth trailer, an attention to detail means the film is consistently funny, and surprising.
If the first section of Zootopia is like Gattaca, then film noir such as Chinatown inspires the rest of it. Hopps and Wilde’s investigation is a survey of a varied landscapes, one where they encounter friends and enemies in unlikely places. They visit a tundra that’s run by the mob, and a rain-forest that may upend the foundation of their entire social experiment. The animation veers between exaggerated cuteness and an impressive attention to detail; there are some images with so much inventiveness that I could not help but smile.
In spite of the aw-shucks cuteness of the opening scenes, the division of predator/prey means Zootopia eventually has deeper social implications. The dialogue wisely never presents the dynamic in racial terms, and instead focuses on the consequences of stereotypes, on both personal and institutional levels. Hopps and Wilde arrive at a painful impasse, and what they uncover has been clearly influenced by infamous cases of modern police brutality. Adults will see ugly echoes of modern prejudice, and yet Zootopia’s deft touch means they are hidden from innocent eyes.
In a recent essay from The AV Club, critic Ryan Vlastelica observes that most social issue films are set in the past, or have such small distribution that they cannot be influential. Vlastelica must have written his essay before he saw Zootopia, as it taps into genuine anxieties with a setting that resembles ours. Talking animals notwithstanding, the city of Zootopia goes through a checklist of twenty-first century life: there is everything from annoying smartphone apps, to an infuriating local bureaucracy, to a craven mayor who is happy with the status quo (ironically, the mayor is a lion). Thanks to its visuals and subtext, the film is about as ambitious as Pixar’s best, if not more. Most allegory is a little smug: adults are already hip to the point, or they’re so far gone they cannot see it. The crucial difference is how Zootopia recognizes allegory should be for younger minds. They’re more malleable, and the sunny animation ultimately hides a smart, big-hearted message of hope.