Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) in Zootopia
The Walt Disney Company is not known for having a particularly good track record on race. From the racist caricatures of early films like Dumbo and Song of the South – which Disney removed from circulation based on its antiquated portrait of black characters – to even the modern examples of racial insensitivity like Aladdin and its Middle Eastern stereotypes, Disney films often miss the mark when portraying other cultures. It is thus a great relief that Zootopia is not only a thinly-veiled discussion of racial prejudice, it actually gets its message right.
Race has never been a strong suit among Disney’s animated films, but adorable anthropomorphic animals has always been an area in which the company has excelled. Zootopia thus sets its story in a world where animals of all species live together and behave like humans. They wear clothing, hold jobs and live in both big cities and small towns. Audiences who cried at the death of Bambi’s mother would be reassured that in this Disney film, Bambi’s mother would probably be an actuary working a nine-to-five job, although this does raise the question whether working as an actuary is a fate worse than death.
The film centers around a small-town rabbit named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin, whose role in “Once Upon a Time” makes her an expert in Disney characters), who becomes the first rabbit police officer. In order to solve a case, she teams up with a fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) who seems to fit the untrustworthy stereotype of his species.
Zootopia exists in a world where animals have largely rejected the dichotomy between predator and prey, but the tension between the species is a constant undercurrent. Each species holds certain preconceptions about one another, and when one of Judy’s cases brings this to the forefront of Zootopia, the real-life parallels to race become evident. Like most Disney films, this is one with a message of self-improvement. Children will see Judy Hopps becoming the first rabbit police officer and take the message that everything is possible if you work hard enough. Adults will see parallels to racial stereotyping and the treatment of minorities by police officers. Perhaps more than most Disney animated movies, this film is tilted more toward adults; references like those to “Breaking Bad” will hopefully go over the heads of the younger audience members.
The message of Zootopia may be clear, but it fortunately never overtakes the film itself, which remains a spry comedy in which most of the jokes work well, particularly those geared to adults. Children may not know the horrors of visiting the DMV, but adults will find the fact that it is staffed by sloths absolutely perfect.
Alongside Goodwin and Bateman, the film features supporting turns by actors beloved by sophisticated adults like Idris Elba of Beasts of No Nation and Jenny Slate of Obvious Child, both of whom might find it a relief to play a buffalo and a sheep, respectively, after handling such heavy material. Among the supporting cast, only Shakira operates on familiar ground as a one-named pop star named Gazelle.
The animation in Zootopia is first-rate, as one would expect from a Disney production. If it does not quite reach the level that Pixar achieves in its best films, it is merely that Pixar has elevated the art of animation so high that even its parent company cannot compete. The directors, Byron Howard and Rich Moore, previously handled such Disney hits like Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled, but their work here leans more toward the former than the latter. Like Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6, Zootopia seems to indicate a new path for Disney apart from the animated musicals that have dominated the company’s animated films since The Little Mermaid. Because it’s Disney, there will have to be cute animals, but now they’re more likely to listen to a song on their iPhone than break into song themselves
Walt Disney Pictures
In theaters March 4
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