Disney’s Zootopia Deftly Delivers its Message (Review)

In the much-hyped Zootopia, the film’s commitment to its core concept is also its saving grace. But before we get into that, let’s recap the film’s premise. From Disney:

From the largest elephant to the smallest shrew, the city of Zootopia is a mammal metropolis where various animals live and thrive. When Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) becomes the first rabbit to join the police force, she quickly learns how tough it is to enforce the law. Determined to prove herself, Judy jumps at the opportunity to solve a mysterious case. Unfortunately, that means working with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a wily fox who makes her job even harder.

As you can easily ascertain from the synopsis, Zootopia’s core concept is that it’s a world where animals have evolved to the level of modern day humans. In past times, this might have meant playing fast and loose with just how much the anthropomorphic creatures actually resemble their real-world counterparts, but Zootopia chooses to stick to the idea that these characters have ancestral roots in actual wild animals. This means an attention to detail down to the way they move and interact with each other, and that’s not the only dose of “realism.”

Rather than dodge the issue entirely, Zootopia puts the differences between species front and center, showing one of the ugly realities of our world with much more obvious lines of division. This awareness is what drives Zootopia forward, with the opening of the movie immediately setting the tone and opening up the question of whether predator and prey really are living in harmony. By the way, it’s worth mentioning that, in this world, only mammals have evolved to intelligence. I think it’s fair to say that any other type of animal is fair game as a food source for the predators, not that it really matters.

At any rate, this movie has a message. I mean, it’s right there in the synopsis: “The first rabbit to join the police force.” If you thought you were getting out of this without at LEAST an “anyone can be anything” message, well… maybe you shouldn’t be watching children’s movies. But fret not! The messages this film tries to convey are surprisingly well handled!

So let’s get right into it. First, you’ve got the obvious: making a seemingly impossible dream come true. Okay, that translates directly enough to real life. As our main character, Judy Hopps, shows early on, if you work hard enough you can reach your goals! Of course, that’s pretty much crushed minutes later, and I got a good laugh out of her parents’ talk of settling (they settled HARD) and not believing too much in dreams.

Second, you have the fear of people who are different, and learning not to generalize or stereotype. As a general concept, this obviously translates, and thank goodness there’s no attempt to make it any more direct. The last thing I would have wanted was the simple overlaying of ethnic stereotypes onto talking animals instead of using their natural differences as a point. That would have been a disaster, and would have lowered this film to the level of an after school special at best. Instead, we get an acceptably broad message that stereotypes are bad, and everyone deserves a chance. Which is fine.

Third, and finally, is the same message that Wreck-it Ralph had, which is that you can become something better than what you are/what the world says you are. This is Nick’s arc, and another case where the message is kept focused on the core concept, which is that he’s a fox, and foxes are known to be sly and untrustworthy. Again, this is fine by me.

I will point out that there was a moment where the movie maybe overstepped with its message, where Judy responds to being called cute by explaining that it’s okay for other rabbits to call a rabbit cute, but… you know. This was a little too on the nose for me is what I’m saying.

Beyond driving home those messages, this was a legitimately good movie too. It nailed the most important aspect of any buddy cop story: the chemistry between the leads. Jason Bateman’s Nick is a charmingly sly hustler who gets roped into helping Ginnifer Goodwin’s painfully earnest Judy. Nick really shines early on with his condescending, shyster ways, and Judy’s unbreakable spirit and energy keeps the first half from dragging. I will note that there were a number of one-off characters used to cash in on the film’s gimmick, but they were arguably just quick riffs for laughs. That’s not even mentioning the level of detail in transposing our world to one of non-human mammals; which were all great visual details.

The plot itself basically follows the beats of any police procedural, including the requisite twists and turns. There’s not a lot to say for it being an especially compelling story, but I appreciated the fact that it stuck to the premise of animals and their behaviors while making its socially aware points. There were fun segments, such as Judy chasing a weasel through a rodent burrough, but the true highlight of the film lies in its two leads. Ultimately, they are what makes this movie work so well. I can only hope there’s more in store for Nicholas P. Wilde and Judy Hopps.

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