With the recent issues in our country, you would expect a lot more mainstream films to tackle race in America. Between smaller issues like #Oscarssowhite and larger problems like the shooting in Ferguson, racial equality is a serious discussion that needs to happen in our country. But besides maybe Straight Outta Compton, it’s rare to find big budget movies that are willing to tackle this story head on in a competent way. This may seem like an odd way to start to a review for an animated kid’s movie but believe me when I make this next statement. Zootopia is a fantastic movie not just because it’s a funny children’s film and a clever addition to the mystery genre, it’s also a fantastic movie because it manages to create one of the most intelligent and bold discussions on race that I’ve seen a movie do in years.
In the city of Zootopia, the buildings, jobs and attitudes very much resemble the world of our own. The only major difference is that this world is run by anthropomorphic mammals rather than human beings. Predators and prey must live together under the same roof and deal with each other despite their differences.
For our main character Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), her lifetime goal was to become a police officer. This proves to be a challenge because she’s a rabbit (prey) in a workplace dominated by bears, lions and wolves (predators). When she finally gets recruited, she finds out that the job isn’t exactly what she hoped it would be as she has to face discrimination and scrutiny from the other officers on the force. A missing person’s case gives Judy 48 hours to prove to her colleagues that she has what it takes to solve a crime. If she doesn’t get the job done in that time, she has to resign. With the help of a con artist fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), Hopps searches the wide, massive city of Zootopia for clues.
Before I explain my opening statement, I want to address some of the other things that made this such an entertaining film. For starters, the world inside of Zootopia gives directors Bryon Howard and Rich Moore a lot of leeway to create this expansive and ambitious landscape. I love it in movies and shows when you can tell how much detail went into the world building. The way they use the different animals is endlessly unique and there’s so much layers to the city of Zootopia from the billboards to the cities to the newspapers. You can find everything from a shrew that’s a crime boss protected by security guard polar bears to a sloth that runs a DMV. There’s an ice cream shop where elephants scoop ice cream with their trunks and there’s a drug lab that’s run by rams. I’m really reminded of something like Brazil or even Futurama where everywhere you look you can find concepts and characters that you want to learn more about. You can literally point at one area of the screen at one point in time and find something that deserves further acknowledgement. It helps that the animation for this film is the best I’ve seen for a Disney film since Wreck-it Ralph. One of the amazing things cinema can do is that it can build places that you can explore from multiple angles on repeat viewings; Zootopia has definitely succeeded at this.
The voice acting for this film is wonderful. Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman have great chemistry as Hopps and Wilde and they infuse there characters with charm and sincerity. They nail the funnier lines of dialogue and when the film gets darker, they make the drama feel sincere and warranted. In a particular scene, Wilde has to tell Hopps about a dark thing that happened to him in his past and it feels as authentically tragic as the darkest moments of a drama like The Big Short or Boyhood. They’re supported by a huge supporting cast who make the most of the wide variety of characters. Tommy Chong playing a stoner yak and Idris Elba playing a stern buffalo that’s the chief of police are only two of several wonderful choices they made with the ensemble.
Finally, I have to discuss the outstanding score done here by Michael Giacchino. Between this and Inside Out, Giacchino has quickly become one of my favorite film composers working today. Whatever he does, he manages to make huge, breathtaking compositions that fit perfectly with the films without becoming too sentimental or overbearing. The music he does here reminds me of those old scores from the Hitchcock films and it helps to give Zootopia the feeling of one of those classic, large scale mysteries. The use of drums and a huge orchestra makes the movie sounds big and grandiose in a way that can’t be found in most major studio blockbusters today. I would personally take one soundtrack by Michael Giacchino over twenty of Thomas Newman’s sappy, phoned in soundtracks any day.
So now that I have gotten these basic things mentioned, what is it about Zootopia that makes it such a daring discussion on race? First off, the movie takes place in a world that doesn’t have any of the same people as our own. This allows them to take on race in a way that’s more abstract and less restrained. They can talk about the problems of the time while creating a work of art.
And the problems in Zootopia do a great job presenting the problems in the US today. They present these animals of different types being forced to live and work together and they show the different misconceptions and beliefs that these animals have with other animals. For example, the rabbits see the foxes as savage liars who can’t do anything right. Hopps’ parents tell Hopps at the beginning that it was scientifically proven that foxes are born dangerous because it’s in there DNA. In a scene where Hopps and Wilde are arguing, Hopps’ immediate reaction is to pull a weapon on him when he moves towards her in a specific way. On the other side of the coin, the rabbits are seen as weaker and more pathetic. They can’t be police officers because they aren’t as strong and powerful as the other officers around them. When the officers do get a rabbit officer, they celebrate it as this big achievement but they don’t put her in the line of duty or give her a job that isn’t invisible. As Hopps puts it, they make her the token rabbit. Hopps and Wilde are only two animals in a city of prejudices lying underneath the disguise of thousands of animals living together in harmony. The movie constantly mirrors how people of different genders and colors are viewed in America but it does so using a blank canvas of opportunity for its world. The movie is totally different yet totally accurate at the same time.
The other terrific thing Zootopia does in handling race is in how it humanizes racists. In a lot of movies about race, it feels incredibly easy to make all the racists these big monsters and the oppressed these wonderful, beautiful angels who are practically perfect in every way. Don’t get me wrong, racism is a horrible thing and it would be incredible if we could live in a world without it. At the same time, it’s always seemed ineffective and hypocritical to me to simply portray racist people as the one dimensional villains. These are people who are very misguided, but they’re still human beings. They have friends, they go to work and they love just like the rest of us. And even though we might not personally want to believe it, sometimes we can all in one way or another be unintentionally racist to someone else. Racism is a struggle humans have to deal with, but if there is happy ending to our struggle with racism, the answer isn’t to attack and ignore every single person who disagrees with our world beliefs. Everyone has the potential be racist and the world doesn’t exist in black and white.
At first, Hopps seems like the clear hero who has to fight against discrimination. But as the movie goes on, her prejudices are revealed and it turns out that she can be just as judgmental as the people who were attacking her earlier on the film. The movie has no clear hero when it comes to racial tension, both sides are equally bad. And at the same time, both sides can be equally enlightened. A bully who beats up Hopps in her childhood is shown later on the movie to be a farmer working with her parents. So as the movie goes continues, the answer to the problem isn’t a fight or a self-righteous speech. The solution is the admittance of our errors and the hope that through simply hanging out and talking with each other, the misconceptions in our society can go away. Like Mannix and Warren in The Hateful Eight, the difficulties of racism are thrown away by the ability for two largely different people with different viewpoints to work together and see beyond their own opinions to share a common goal. Hopps and Wilde have demeaning opinions of each other that are solved by not just ignoring the problem until it hopefully goes away, but by solving the mystery. It’s bizarre to have to say this, but like the bloody Tarantino movie, the Disney film has found an honest and helpful way for us to view race in this country. In the ending, Hopps view of Zootopia isn’t as perfect and clear as she had originally thought when she was child. But at the same time, she sees it as a place where amazing things can still get accomplished.
Zootopia is a movie that I continue to love the more I consider it. Beyond the weighty stance on race, the film is a clever buddy cop movie set in a beautiful, complex world that I wouldn’t mind returning to time and again. Let me put it this way, I would watch the hell out of a TV show involving these two characters going around the city solving crimes. And it only adds that the film brought up racism in a kids movie with more nuance and depth than Crash, The Blind Side and Driving Miss Daisy combined. Every year we need one movie to come along to be the first amazing movie to get released. In 2014 it was The Grand Budapest Hotel, in 2015 it was Ex Machina and in 2016 that film is Zootopia.
Release Date: 3/4/2016
Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk and Shakira
Directed by: Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush
Screenplay by: Jared Bush, Phil Johnston, Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jennifer Lee, Josie Trinidad, Jim Reardon and Dan Fogelman