Director: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Brush
Writers: Story by Byron Howard, Jared Brush, Rich Moore, Josie Trinidad, Jim Reardon, Phil Johnston, & Jennifer Lee (Additional Story Material by Dan Fogelman); Screenplay by Jared Brush & Phil Johnston
Stars: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Sci-fi/Fantasy
Rating: PG (for some thematic elements, rude humor, & action)
I can distinctly remember a time not long ago when Disney’s animation division was in a time of flux. PIXAR became the industry presence that it stands now after an output of consistent quality loved by both critics and audiences alike. After the rise of real competition from the likes of Dreamworks Animation, Blue Sky Studios, and Illumination Entertainment, many industry analysts cast doubt over the future of an in-house Disney Animation team, especially after some missteps (honestly, does anyone remember The Wild?).
Still, after a refocus and restructuring, a few less memorable films (Meet The Robinsons and Bolt) and a nostalgic experiment into the hand-drawn glory days (The Princess & The Frog), the magic began to gather again for Disney in-house. After Tangled, the old fairy-tale with a fresh coat of 3D, and Wreck It Ralph, a film as inventive and fresh as anything they’d done in years, Disney changed the game with Frozen, a phenomenon no-one saw coming. Since then, the industry has looked as much at Walt Disney Animation Studios as they do at PIXAR. Add to that the way Big Hero 6 brought the MARVEL comic-book crowd, one of the most lucrative markets in film right now, into the mix, and you could say that Disney has been in a competition with itself on multiple fronts. Walt Disney Animation Studios has all eyes on them for what comes next.
Enter Zootopia, a film that has largely played the marketing game with its cards close to the chest. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, other than a bunny cop, a sly fox, and an prolonged sloth sequence (pun-intended). I intentionally stayed away from knowing more than that, and honestly, I wasn’t that excited initially about it from what I saw in the ads. However, once the film got closer to release and I heard more of what it was actually about, I became very intrigued. From various reports, I began to get the impression that this wasn’t a simple movie with a few tacked-on virtues, as the Disney formula has largely been for decades. Zootopia was said to be about something much more substantive, and that’s an exciting possibility for a family film.
Before I get into the review proper, in an effort to not spoil a genuinely surprising film, I will only provide a cursory look at the plot. Our main character is Judy Hopps, a small rabbit who has big idealistic dreams of changing the world by being a cop. This might be all well and good in a film about only rabbits, but she is just one species among a plethora of diversity in the world we see on screen. Almost every type of mammal you can imagine has a place in this film, and it creates a diverse lineup of characters and an imaginative world to accommodate them.
Judy’s big dreams take her from the relative peace of her family’s vegetable farm and into the heart of Zootopia, a populace with purpose: a place where predator and prey can coexist peacefully and all can be what they want without expectation. Judy’s presence on the city’s police force is a real test of that theory if there ever was one, and everything seems to be actively involved in keeping her down from where she wants to be.
Despite being assigned to routine traffic duty, she knows she can do more than she is allowed, and her tenaciousness lands her smack-dab in a case with a ticking deadline and heavy stakes. On the job, she meets a loner, predator fox, Nick Wilde, who sees no reason to exist beyond the hustle of conning others. His life has led him to where he is, so why change it? Both of them need each other’s help throughout the film, and they must work together if they are going to solve the case.
Violence/Scary Images: One scene in particular involving bullying was so resonant that it may ring scarily true with children experiencing it themselves. There are moments where I heard children and adults shout out, due to moments of attack, suspense, and chase scenes. Also, the film opens with a scene of “blood” that may trouble some, while most will laugh out loud (as I did).
Language/Crude Humor: Nothing offensive or inappropriate, but it is worth noting that there are several expressions of ‘OMG’ and other potentially offensive phrases said in different ways as to avoid “saying something.”
Sexual Content: One scene in particular felt like a clever spin on a common scene in detective movies, questioning witnesses in compromising situations of undress. Still, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t awkward to see in a Disney cartoon. The trip to a “nude resort” for animals, characters usually portrayed without clothes anyway, sounds worse written here than it plays out, but this section exists to let parents and the concerned know what’s coming.
Drug/Alcohol References: Dealing with a city with an underbelly, drugs/alcohol aren’t specifically existent, but they are presented in their own way in the film. Anyone with any concept of illegal drug/alcohol manufacturing will see those methods on display presented in the film, even if that knowledge is only based in pop-culture and not actual experience. While this is all part of the world on display, children may have questions beyond what they see, so be prepared to answer.
Spiritual Content: Nothing inherently spiritual was on display. Apparently, Zootopia is too busy with social ideals to worry with professing belief systems of any kind.
Negative Content: As my analysis will show later, you take from this movie what you bring in, and potentially, parents could see the messages of the movie being spun in a way that works against what they may feel is right, but overall, I thought the film teaches important concepts in creative and relatable ways.
Positive Content: Accomplishing our dreams despite adversity, never giving up on ourselves or others, and there being more to others than what we first see are all ideas shown here, and each is an important thing to discuss with children after watching. In addition to these moral lessons, there are some high-concept societal ideas, but they are presented in an easily digestible way.
Zootopia is about racism.
Zootopia is about sexism and gender equality.
Zootopia is about wealth distribution and the rigidity of class structures.
Zootopia is about broken ideals and how to compensate for a world that isn’t exactly what it’s cracked up to be.
Zootopia is about respecting others when long histories and circumstance war against those potential relationships.
Zootopia is about being force-fed by society what you can and cannot do, yet actively working to prove them all wrong.
Zootopia is about the perceptions of law, order, and justice and how effective and reflective they really are of reality.
Zootopia is about the falsehoods and deceptions that can and usually will be said and done to perpetuate power.
Zootopia is about learning to exist in a larger ecosystem than ourselves.
Zootopia is about forever believing in yourself.
Zootopia is about change.
You choose to see what you want to see, and the film can be about any one of these things. I know those are just bullet points, but that carries on a core theme of the movie: often, we see others first as just that, bullet points and initial impressions, informed by any number of sources, faulty even if they are well-meaning. Sometimes, those bullet points and initial impressions hold at least a basis of truth, no matter the size, but usually, with time and knowledge, we see beyond those initial first impressions, and we find that there’s much more to others than we realized.
The strongest compliment I can give the film is that it is a wonderful allegory for this exact moment in human history. Never have I seen a film fashion the concept of race relations into a format that is both objective in nature and easy to understand. The entire time, I found myself challenged with multiple perspectives and lenses with which to view the film.
It is difficult for me even now in writing this to try to decide if the film brought them all out intentionally in subtle ways, or if the complex problems our society is dealing with currently nationwide forced the ideas to come to my mind. As I’ve heard said before, animation can say things that live action simply can’t, and Zootopia is exactly the kind of movie we need in this cultural climate, hopefully one that will allow us to look at our real-world problems in a way that all can comprehend, regardless of age or background, and come to some truths we might not have seen otherwise.
For our readership, one that gravitates toward entertainment with quality world-building, whatever the medium, I personally loved the world put on screen. The animation is vibrant and detailed; everything on display is relatable and reflective of right now, not some by-gone era. The realizing on-screen of the vastly different districts of the city, each housing different types and size of animals, made me instantly feel that I want (NEED) to experience more of the imagination on display. I was hooked to all of the surprises the film kept throwing my way. This wasn’t some cobbled together effort, and I would enjoy seeing more films or a quality video game set in this universe.
The voicework is usually key to any animated film working well, and each voice was perfect for this film. I’m a huge fan of Jason Bateman, but his work isn’t always kid-friendly. He was a perfect choice for Nick, and Ginnifer Goodwin, while not an actress I’ve seen too much of, brings Judy to life. Most of the other characters play to each actor’s strength, and I can’t say there was anyone that disappointed. To Alan Tudyk’s credit, I usually try and deduce who voiced who during the film. I thought for most of the film Steve Buscemi voiced the role Alan did, so he fooled me and brought the goods as he has done in the past several years in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ films.
One more thing needs to be said of Zootopia: it is, without question of theme, a well-crafted buddy-cop detective story. Kids may have little to no exposure with this genre (nor should they, with the usual mature subject matter involved). They may be won over by it all just by it being animals on display, but at the core of this film is a complete competency in telling that type of story well. For the eagle-eyed cinema fan, there are Easter-Eggs galore throughout the experience of the film, and repeated viewings will be rewarded.
I’ve watched many animated films with my daughter throughout her childhood, but it’s a rare experience to have so much to talk about with her after such a film. The issues brought forward aren’t typical conversations we would have, but the shared experience of the film brought us to a place of mutual understanding. As some children’s films can be a genuine slog to get through with little of lasting importance brought up, Disney has pulled itself up to a place where I now expect quality. I absolutely wasn’t disappointed here, and I don’t think you will be either.
Being that this is Geeks Under Grace, I would be remiss without voicing one concern over the film: just as our modern world tries to increasingly justify non-Biblical, sinful behavior, I could conceivably see many using the lessons of this film to justify their own views, regardless of if those connections are indeed valid points to be made. We see this happening daily by pundits and bloggers, and to me, it would be foolish to not expect it here in a film marketed to impressionable children.
I believe that this film’s deft handling of the concepts of various issues we’re dealing with is a great thing to witness and process, no matter the age, but my conclusion is with so much opportunity for discussion after the film, some will use the movie as a misguided indoctrination tool for or against vastly different schools of thought. Still, after seeing a movie like this, if a child or adult can learn to persevere despite adversities, to know that things can be better in life through being an agent of change, and to begin to treat others with mutual love and respect (all things I would say should be evident in Christian behavior), I’d say that it is a trip to the movies well worth it.
+ A fully-realized world reflective of our own + Clever use of film tropes and themes + Important message(s) for all people to learn
- Some parts, while clever, felt a bit much for a typical Disney film - Not all will let the film speak for itself, but will speak into it
The Bottom Line
Zootopia works masterfully on multiple levels: an enjoyable comedy, a competent detective story, and a reflection of our world with its various complicated problems. It's filled with lessons and inevitable differing conclusions to be made, but each should experience it for all that it brings to the audience.