Zootopia Movie Review: Disney Goes Political, With Bunnies!

Disney's latest is a mixed bag of political inquiry and film noir.
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As Disney continues basking in the icy glow of Frozen's success the rest of their animation output - the films unassociated with Pixar - hovers in the "delightfully pleasant" category. Past efforts like Big Hero 6 and Wreck-It Ralph have provided fun and whimsical diversions, if lacking long-term memorability and serious appreciation.

There's little doubt you'll forget Zootopia as Disney gets politically charged, presenting a world of anthropomorphized animals acting out our worst prejudices that both reminds us of how terrifying a world run by Donald Trump can be while simultaneously teaching children about tolerance. The dual-level satire of Zootopia's message clouds things narratively - leaving it one of Disney's weaker storytelling efforts, but it's goal of teaching adults and children is achieved.

Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) dreams of being the first rabbit on the Zootopia police force. Her dream comes true, but her superior's preconceived notions regarding her animal nature leave her writing parking tickets all day. Judy's chance to prove herself comes through finding a missing otter. With the help of a wily, con-artist fox named Nick (voiced by Jason Bateman), Judy will unconver a widespread conspiracy meant to tear Zootopia apart.

Walt Disney Animation has to keep up with the Joneses and by the Joneses, I mean Pixar. Currently, the studio finds themselves in an uncanny valley with their more creatively in-tune cousin - having similar visual flair but lacking in the heart. Of late, much of their work skews closer to the work they crafted between 2005-2012, most closely Chicken Little, filled with slick pop-culture references and quirky humor amidst trite and limited narratives short on significance but entertaining nonetheless. 

Zootopia gets the world-building right - depicting a fully immersive world I'm surprised Disney hasn't already greenlit for inclusion in one of their parks. Because prey and predators live in harmony the various environments create their own boroughs, an animalistic Manhattan (although not nearly as dog eat dog as the real NYC), with buildings of differing heights for different species. A fight sequence between Judy and a criminal - Disney regular Alan Tudyk, getting a funny, if expected, connection to Frozen - takes on Godzilla-like proportions as they fight on a street catering towards smaller animals.

In fact, one almost wishes the characters stopped to take in Zootopia more than they do. Considering Judy is the country bumpkin moving to this strange and exotic city, she completely bypasses acclimation for settlement. As a character, Judy Hopps contains boundless energy, and it's not just because she's a rabbit. Ginnifer Goodwin perfectly encapsulates the old style of Disney voice acting focusing on character first and name recognition second. Her energy and enthusiasm are contagious, instantly bonding you to a character that people underestimate due to her inherent animal characteristics.

The rest of the voice cast is equally compelling. Again, this isn't something like Bolt - and I really enjoy Bolt - where the audience is left playing "Who's that voice?" Playing alongside Goodwin is Jason Bateman, playing a smooth-talking con man who's also been hurt over prejudices. Bateman's snarky vocal work sells and seduces us. I did want one more scene with his young "son." His and Goodwin's scenes are left competing with the overbearing message, and the whole thing plays out like 48 Hours, but they are a fantastic team and kudos for Disney continuing the trend of not placing their characters into a romantic relationship by story's end.

Zootopia's focus, outside of being an animated noir, relys on overturning ingrained character traits, working as a satire for our own prejudices. Judy is told she can't be cop, not because of anything related to gender, but because she's a rabbit. In fact, the film takes the time to translate Judy's rabbitness as hand-in-hand with her victimhood as she's assaulted as a child by a young fox. This moment causes Judy to realize she needs to learn to take care of herself, as well as develops her own prejudices against foxes.

At times the film's "symbolism" errs on the side of matter-of-fact. Based on the language there's no way audiences, particularly adults, won't get that the film is discussing themes involving racism, sexism, and Islamaphobia (in some instances). The fox who hurts Judy "was a jerk who happened to be a fox;" or only rabbits can refer to themselves as cute not unlike a certain racial slur; there's a joke about not touching a sheep's hair; and Judy bonds with the mayor's put-upon secretary (an adorable voice performance from Jenny Slate) who believes female animals need to stick together.

These moments are very pointed, but further the film's point and third act involving quarantining predators as a means of preemptively protecting prey and at least 90% of these moments will go over the heads of the youngest audience members. The villain's Trump-esque plan certainly holds weight in our current world of Middle Eastern immigration - and even going further back to the U.S. involvement with Japanese internment. "Fear always works" connects to us now, but it leaves you wondering who Zootopia is for? Is it a clarion call to the adults in the audience to make good choices? A sly means of promoting a message to those seeking to sate their young 'uns for 90 minutes? And with the message coming through in nearly every line of dialogue it trounces over the noirish vingegar and water relationship between Nick and Judy.

Though far from a masterpiece, Zootopia delivers a politically charged and sobering allegory of events currently playing out on the world's stage. Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman are a fanatastic team and the world they inhabit is beautifully rendered.

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