Zootopia is a brilliant buddy-cop noir story with a surprisingly mature script that tackles issues of systemic and personal racial discrimination, but does so clumsily, muddling it’s metaphors to the detriment of its plot.
The titular Zootopia is a city in a world where instead of humans (or any other kind of ape), every other species of mammal evolved past their basic animal instincts, anthropomorphized, and developed civilization. Predator and prey live in harmony, with bunnies and sheep living alongside rhinos and lions and wolves. Well, relative harmony; some of the prey animals still fear their predator neighbors, and there are all sorts of negative stereotypes about seemingly every species of mammal.
Aiming to break some of those stereotypes is our protagonist, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed bunny with dreams of being Zootopia’s first rabbit police officer. And against all odds (mostly based on her size), Judy eventually makes it onto the force, where she’s immediately put in a meter-maid position. This brings her into contact with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a sly hustling fox, whom she almost immediately (and reasonably) mistrusts. But when Judy disobeys orders, resulting in lots of collateral damage; teaming up with Nick to solve a kidnapping case that has the rest of the force stumped is Judy’s only hope of keeping her job. And like all cases, this one goes a lot deeper than initially expected, involving the rodent mafia, a drug analogous to crack or meth, and government conspiracy.
Zootopia’s plot and characters are great. How the film translates standard noir tropes and storytelling through its animal-based setting is inspired and whimsical. Every location conveys a different mood, and Zootopia makes great use of the different size of its varied animal characters, and the scale of their separate communities, and the biomes in which they’re located, to make each part of the world feel unique. An early chase scene takes Judy from a part of town mostly populated by Elephants and other bigger mammals that could easily crush her under their foot to the part of town where the rodents of Zootopia live, and Judy suddenly becomes not unlike a kaiju. Size also plays a part in illustrating Judy’s personal struggle to fit in at her new job. By far the smallest cop in Zootopia, even sitting down on a police-department chair is a miniature struggle, as she has to hop up onto her seat, and can’t be seen over her desk once she sits down in it. Judy is trying to make it in a part of the world that clearly never had her in mind.
The characters, too, are all incredibly likable. Judy is infectiously hopeful and optimistic – a veritable Energizer Bunny of never-give-up attitude tempered just enough by the weight of her struggles to avoid becoming grating. Nick is a kind of predictable hustler with a heart of gold, but the film doesn’t wait until an arbitrary moment to make him caring and warm towards Judy, he naturally becomes less of a jerk along the way; and besides just being a con man, he’s legitimately charismatic and resourceful. The entire film is incredibly well casted, from Goodwin and Bateman as the leads to smaller roles like JK Simmons as the lion mayor, Jenny Slate as his meek sheep assistant, and Idris Elba as the water-buffalo police chief.
Unfortunately, where Zootopia fails, and does so majorly, is in conveying its message. Zootopia is buddy-cop noir, but that’s just plot and genre; Zootopia is about racial politics, and what it has to say is confused and isn’t well translated through its animal characters. The big conspiracy in Zootopia involves a small number of the predatory animals going “savage,” giving into their baser instincts and attacking prey animals. This causes a panic among the prey animals, who make up 90% of Zootopia’s population, and a backlash against the predators. [SPOILERS] We later find out that these bouts of savagery is caused by a drug made and forced on the predators by a prey animal with a grudge [END SPOILERS] By the end of the film, the lesson is ostensibly not to judge people based on appearances and stereotypes – but this is betrayed by the fact that the predators in Zootopia aren’t dangerous because of [SPOILERS] the drug [END SPOILERS], but instead because they’re biologically equipped with weapons designed to hunt and kill prey. Even within the film, characters acknowledge the natural and historical basis of violence of predatory animals towards prey animals. Because of this, a prey animal wanting to avoid a predator is less an example of prejudice, and more just common sense survival. Zootopia seems to want to make a statement by connecting the animal predator to the racially-charged idea of a criminal “super-predator,” but does so in a way that accidently reinforces the racist idea instead of refute it! And going forward, one could even argue that this film agrees with the idea that, even if everyone today is equal, different ethnicities are historically more or less civilized than others – an idea whose roots are deeply ingrained with now debunked “scientific” excuses for racial discrimination. For the sake of time I’m not even going to get into the implications of Judy’s brief time as an over-enthusiastic meter-maid and how that could reflect on a more racial message.
Also, for a movie that is ostensibly anti-stereotyping, it sure gets a lot of its humor from predictable animal tropes. Judy, being a rabbit, has some two-hundred siblings; the sloths working at the DMV take all day to run a license plate; the sheep are meek; the foxes are tricky the lion mayor is boastful, etc. Even a joke like the elephant who can’t remember anything is predicated on the audience knowing the stereotypes. And this is fine because we’re dealing with animals here, and despite being somewhat obvious, most of these jokes are actually funny; but it’s hard to have an anti-stereotype message when all the stereotypes in the film happen to be true.
And as a last little nitpick about this, if the predator animals aren’t supposed to normally hunt and kill prey animals, what do they eat? Have all the animals evolved to be vegan? Are there mass-produced surrogates for a predator’s natural diet? Honestly, I kind of hope we get a sequel where Judy and Nick have to investigate a Zootopian version of a secret cannibal cabal where we see wolves eating a steak or something.
You could say I’m reading too much into this animated talking animal kid’s movie; but I’d argue that Zootopia invites this sort of discourse. While Zootopia is a children’s movie, it’s written with maturity and boldy deals with issues of discrimination from the get-go. It’s well intentioned, and in places handles things with admirable nuance and topicality. But the Zootopia suffers from feet of clay that unfortunately weaken the rest of this otherwise incredible film.