Zootropolis is a fun and well crafted film, even if it suffers from an excessive over-earnestness…
Also called Zootopia, the film underwent a name-change in European markets, apparently to avoid confusion with a new Danish zoo. Never mind about that because, despite any confusion it may cause, Zootropolis is a far better name for this film, which deals with a vast, cosmopolitan city in which every species of mammal, apparently, except for us homo sapiens, live together in uneasy harmony and not the utopia that original title might suggest.
When Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) finally achieves her lifelong dream of joining Zootropolis’ well-respected police force, she faces rather more opposition in the rôle than she had anticipated, due to her being, in order of how great an obstacle it presents: female; young; rural; and a rabbit. There’s never before been a rabbit on the force, you see and, despite her having received the obligatory top marks from the academy, no-one on the conservative force appreciates this symbol of progress for rabbit acceptance, especially not the Idris Elba-voiced chief, who is a buffalo. The cynical among you may already have guessed that, when she just so happens to uncover a tiny clue to a vast conspiracy, her superiors first scoff at her, then finally agree to allow her to investigate with the caveat that, should she fail to solve the case within 48 hours, she leave the force – forever! The really really cynical have probably even gone so far as to guess that she teams up with a fast-talking, arrogant con artist fox voiced by Jason Bateman who, despite his brash Han Solo-esque exterior, has beating inside him a selfless, Han Solo-esque heart of heroism. Well fine, you’re correct, cynics, but don’t be so smug about it. Along the way they also bump into a sexy gazelle voiced by Shakira, an idealistic lion of a J.K. Simmons-voiced mayor, Maurice LaMarche as an arctic shrew of a crime boss ironically named Mr. Big, John DiMaggio as an elephant, an assortment of other recognisable or vaguely familiar voices as diverse animals, and a slew of animal-themed puns.
It’s a ride. The emotional points along the story are hit with routine, but competent, execution; the uncovering of the crime plot is sufficiently exciting and carefully-timed that the film functions well as a police thriller; and the humour deriving from the intersection of animal stereotypes with human stereotypes genuinely funny for adults and kids alike, with such setpieces as a DMV-like office staffed by sloths. Yet the biggest source of enjoyment is the ingenuity with which the city of Zootropolis has been crafted. The world-building of other anthropomorphic animations – Robots, Cars, Planes, Madagascar, Monsters, Inc. – is usually so negligent it’s essentially nonexistent. Here we find ourselves in a city that seems to live in its own right, one as authentic and recognisable, yet unmistakably other, as Blade Runner’s future-LA or Watchmen’s alternate-1985 New York. Perhaps the best comparison would be the San Fransokyo of Disney’s recent Big Hero 6. Yet the film is so intent on being serious with its world-building that it runs up against a peculiar, familiar paradox: the film is admirably concerned with addressing real-life racial tensions and issues of prejudice and fear of the other – a subject more timely now in both Europe and the United States than it had been for some fifty years – in a manner which is simultaneously intelligent, sensitive, and kid-friendly. Yet its plot revolves around a herbivore-supremacist group attempting to frame predator animals in order to discredit the idea of multiculturalism (or, I should say, multispeciesism). If the herbivore supremacists resemble the Ku Klux Klan then we’re led unavoidably to the conclusion that predators are being equated with blacks, which is unfortunate enough before you realise that, whereas racist ideas in real life are based on outdated, bad science, the herbivores who don’t want to integrate with predators because that’s an undesirable, unnatural situation which puts them in danger are entirely correct. And why should a rabbit be a police officer anyway? In real life there are height and fitness requirements for police officers, who in our world aren’t even expected to face rhinos and elephants in the normal course of duty. At every point in the story it’s the bigots, rather than the progressive heroes, who are undeniably in the right, so the film commits thematic self-sabotage. I wouldn’t bother bringing it up ordinarily, but when the film insists on foregrounding these issues, it’s unavoidable. The film remains a well-plotted, nice-looking bit of fun with some fine voice acting, but one is reminded yet again that, if it’s trenchant social analysis we’re after, going for a Disney animation will bring nothing but well-intentioned embarrassment.
Zootropolis is out today (25th March) in UK cinemas, will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!