Director: Rich Moore, Byron Howard
Disney’s Zootopia has arrived in UK cinemas this weekend – arbitrarily renamed Zootropolis on this side of the Atlantic – and seems like a sure winner for the studio, trading in the kind of animal hijinks that helped make the Mouse Eared behemoth what it is today. In it we follow the adventures of an enterprising young rabbit named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who moves to the big city to join the police force, fulfilling a childhood dream. And while this may sound like business-as-usual, the film also sees the studio breaking with tradition in a couple of key ways.
Perhaps the biggest is that Zootropolis (as I’m going to stick to calling it) completely dispenses with the time-honoured tradition of the princess/prince dynamic. It’s a trope that’s been both beloved and chastised in equal measure over the years, and while recent hits like Tangled or Frozen did their admirable best to undermine the well-worn set-up with more dimensional female characters, both firmly cast their leads in the princess mold. Judy Hopps is a notable step away. And while Zootropolis embraces the ‘buddy cop’ formula for its central adventure, her (literal) partner in crime, fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), at no point resembles anything like a perfect match or saviour for our erstwhile heroine.
Hopps’ caring parents are concerned about their daughter fulfilling such dangerous dreams, preferring she stay in the country and inherit the family business (farming; something the film treats as failure, a little harshly). Hopps will not be swayed however. She defies the odds, graduating top of her class, and makes her move to the big city; a bustling urban jungle of mixed wildlife with a climate suffering from a severe multiple personality disorder.
In the film’s universe animals have ‘evolved’ in the sense that they all perform societal roles just as our human civilisation does. They all wear clothes, have jobs etc, etc. This allows Zootropolis to delve into it’s other ambitious endeavour; folding a sincere and timely lesson about inclusiveness and racial equality into the admirably involved central mystery.
Initially dismissed by her superior Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) to cover parking duty, Hopps encounters Wilde. Her initial prejudice against foxes leads her to believe he is up to no good. And while Wilde doesn’t exactly prove her wrong, the two are destined to forge an unlikely alliance as Hopps unwittingly makes key discoveries in her first real case; the mysterious disappearance of a number of citizens – all predators – which are being treated as separate incidents, but are all links in one diabolical scheme designed to exploit the public’s fears.
The bulk of the film sees Hopps and Wilde unofficially partnered up in a race against time to solve the mystery before Bogo boots Hopps off of the force. With a shade more intricacy than one might expect from an animated film featuring an array of fluffy and furry creatures, Zootropolis spins a pleasing noir detective story, allowing the filmmakers plenty of opportunities to tip their hats to various pillars of film history. Cinephiles can take pleasure in picking up on these little Easter eggs, some subtle, some less-so. All in all it’s a fun adventure that seems keen to please children and adults. The kids get some cute characters and funny moments. The adults get to watch Disney take a pointedly political stance. One of their most overt.
Replace the word ‘predators’ with the word ‘muslims’ or ‘immigrants’, for instance, and Zootropolis becomes a (very) thinly veiled lesson about the dangers of fear mongering and the harm caused by sweeping generalisations. The studio tends to stick to fantasy for safety. The middle of the road is where the most money is usually made. Zootropolis however sees a definite voice for consideration and equality being raised. It’s a liberal film and a positive step; something of a landmark moment in Disney’s recent evolution, even if the connotation with ‘predators’ sits a little uneasily. This is a progressive film for youngsters. That it’s message is sledgehammered home can be forgiven; the fact of the filmmakers actively engaging their audience in such a conversation far outweighs the lumpen nature of its delivery. Between that and the treatment of its heroine, Zootropolis is the most modern Disney film in quite some time.
On the entertainment side, things just about stack up satisfyingly. The sloth sequence which featured so heavily in the movie’s promotion offers the biggest laughs of the show. Zootropolis is funny, but it’s more likely to generate smiles or mild titters than raucous howling in the aisles (unless there are any wolves in the audience). Despite the earnestness of its core message, this is relatively light material, not overly burdened with dynamic sequences of action or particularly memorable dialogue between it’s leads. And while the steps away from the usual formula are heartening, there’s still something to be said for a good ol’ fashioned villain, something the film rather lacks when the big mystery’s revealed.
Yet what lingers is the evolutionary approach to its female lead. The main separator between acts two and three is not the perilous physical threat or practical danger that needs averting (though one does exist), but rather Hopps’ own internal struggle. In a moment of pressure and anxiety, she manages to muddy public perception with some ill-thought-out words at a press conference. She takes her failure to heart. In order to correct her mistake she must not only bring the people of Zootropolis back together, but regain faith in her own abilities. There’s no prince to help her with the latter; just a friend from another race there to support her as she takes the necessary steps herself. As Donald Trump tramples all over any hopes of progression for America, the importance of films like Zootropolis is keenly felt indeed.