By Chaz Lipp
What do the carnivorous animals of Zootopia eat? That’s not a nitpick of this engaging Disney animated film, but a genuine head-scratcher. Besides popsicles, it’s hard to tell how these animals get their sustenance—particularly the meat-eaters. See, in the world of Zootopia all animals live together in peaceful harmony. All species of animals have evolved to the point of near-total non-aggression. In other words, the food chain has completely ceased to exist. No more survival of the fittest. No more natural selection. Lions and tigers co-exist with hamsters and rabbits. Will power has triumphed over instinct in this fantasy, animal-dominated world. The food thing isn’t that big a deal, but it does exemplify some of what doesn’t quite work in this consistently funny film.
At its core, Zootopia seeks to make some kind of point about racism and xenophobia but it’s actually best to just sit back and enjoy the show. Thinking about it too much reveals the cracks in its facade. Panthers, for instance, are different than giraffes. One needn’t hold a degree in zoology to know that animal species differ inherently in their survival needs, behavior, and intellect. It’s not analogous to racism if we acknowledge those differences. Some animals are inherently smarter than others, while some are inherently more aggressive. The same cannot be applied to humans, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds, because—well, if you don’t already know then this review is unlikely to clear anything up. Humans all around the world share common needs, instincts, and intelligence levels.
So while the filmmakers clearly had deeper ambitions for Zootopia as a mirror to our societal woes, they generally don’t pan out. Luckily the story of rabbit Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) and fox Nick (Jason Bateman) is funny and heartfelt enough to stand on its own despite Zootopia‘s pretensions. Judy wants to buck societal expectations and become Zootopia’s first-ever rabbit cop (as opposed to bigger, physically stronger water buffalo cops or wolf cops). Her parents and carrot-farming community have raised her with the notion that rabbits are “dumb” and simply cannot be police officers. But Judy is driven and soon she graduates Zootopia’s police academy at the top of her class. Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) isn’t having it—Judy will have to settle for issuing parking violations all day. It’s not a challenging job, but someone’s gotta do it.
The narrative takes flight when Judy manages to squeeze her way into a real case. Mrs. Otterton’s otter husband is missing and Zootopia PD has no leads. Scanning a “last seen” photo, Judy notices scam artist fox Nick in the frame. She was raised with the notion that foxes are, without exception, criminals (her parents make her carry fox repellent). Judy had a nasty run-in with Nick, so she approaches him warily. To her relief, Nick proves to be a fountain of info and soon rabbit and fox are working together. They both hold prejudices about each other, something that leads to more than one riff.
It’s becoming a cliche to say that today’s animated films have just as much to offer adult audiences as child audiences. But that really is the case with Zootopia, and not just because of the Godfather and Breaking Bad spoofs. Much of the humor is subtle enough that it will sail right over younger viewers’ heads. And the 108-minute running time might try those kids’ patience a bit, too. But there’s a lot to like here, from the inventive animation to the expert voice work (the cast also includes J.K. Simmons, Jenny Slate, Alan Tudyk, Tommy Chong, and Shakira). As a study in sociology, it’s half-baked. You can’t really simultaneously fight stereotyping and revel in it (see the sloths). And again, someone has to write the parking the tickets – there’s no shame in that. But as a witty, bighearted, and often action-packed family entertainment about overcoming slim odds, it’s still a winner.
Zootopia Images: Walt Disney Studios