Have you read “Blacksad” by Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido? It’s a French/Spanish comic series about a detective who happens to be a black cat. He lives in a hardboiled world populated by anthropomorphic animals that deals in violence, corruption, racism, and fear. The animal coating is only there to provide a visual flair as much heavier themes get blended into the story. The reason I mention this series is because “Zootopia” accomplishes much the same thing in a similar fashion. Kind of surprising from a Disney movie.
“Zootopia” is set in a world where animals have evolved from their baser instincts and now predators and their usual prey live in relative harmony in a city for which the movie is named. The story follows an idealistic young bunny named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who dreams of becoming a cop. Turns out that’s not really a job known for having rabbits and most of the world seems to think she’s fooling herself and needs to give up on her dreams. She doesn’t and finds herself in a struggle against expectations based solely on what she is. Her being the only bunny on the force serves just as well as being the only woman. The plot develops when she involves herself in a missing animal case and is forced to team-up with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a disreputable con man fox with a chip on his shoulder.
Where “Zootopia” truly makes itself stand out not only as a great Disney movie, but probably the best of their computer animated features thus far, is in the writing and ideas. It’s very smart and cleverly written, using its animal world as a venue to address themes of prejudice, racial tension, and sexism. It’s also a police story, comically in the vein of “48 Hrs.”, only with cute little critters. That this is done effortlessly in a Disney cartoon aimed at young audiences is commendable.
Like a woman in a man’s world, Judy is a little girl bunny in a big animal world, trying to stand out as a cop when all the others look down at her without giving her a chance. She’s instantly passed up for a real case and instead given a lesser job as a meter maid. Simultaneously, Nick is a fox and therefore deemed a liar, a cheat, and untrustworthy despite whatever intentions he may have had. Even Judy is not immune to having certain ideas about him just on account of old stereotypes and the way he looks. Her fears ring a little too clear, even with the cartoon setting. As they grow and spend time together, the two of them form a very likeable pair and it’s easy to become invested in their relationship.
These tensions later grow as the mystery unfolds; eventually snowballing into a citywide fear campaign that pits the majority against the minority predator population. It’s amazingly topical in our current climate, even if these are sadly universal themes. To a child, they understand that it’s bad to assume something about a person based on how they look or seem, but this aspect of the story is handled with such maturity and focus that it adds a sense of legitimacy to the goofy animal world and its inhabitants. The police investigation aspect is taken fairly seriously, with darker implications surrounding the motives of the villain. Not that there aren’t plenty of visual gags and jokes based solely on the animals and their stereotypes, but the purpose of the setting and characters goes much further than mere yucks.
Though undoubtedly creative and colorful, the animation is probably the least interesting aspect of the movie. The characters are charming and humorously designed, each one full of personality befitting their character types and animals, but there is a certain sameness to their designs. They more or less resemble the large-eyed comedic characters that populate all the recent CG Disney and Pixar films.
That’s not to say “Zootopia” has nothing to offer visually. Quite the opposite, in fact. The city itself is brimming with color, detail, and creativity. It’s a divided place where one part of the city is the desert, another is the rainforest, and another is the frozen tundra, and so on. There’s a lot of thought that clearly went into the world building aspect of the movie and it shows. What’s less remarkable is how little it stands out against some of its peers, the better of which are equally impressive. It makes me wonder if the studio animated films have reached a limit in terms of how distinct they can look. Computer animation in this style will continue to become more technically impressive, but until they decide to find a way to make things truly look different from one another, there will be a slow but steady stagnation in what should be the most limitless form of cinema.
Along with Byron Howard (director of “Tangled”) the movie was handled by Rich Moore, the man responsible for directing “Wreck-It Ralph”, another surprisingly clever entry from Disney. His is a name to watch for in future Disney endeavors. If these two movies are any indication, there’s at least one clever and creative voice in the Disney studio.