One of the things I really loved about Madagascar was the unspoken metaphor about city living that underpinned it: that cities are civilizing. That cities are places that even out the differences between us and somehow allow us to coexist in relative harmony. I mean, look: Madagascar’s heroes were a lion and a zebra, predator and prey in the wild but best of friends within the cultivated confines of the urban jungle who wouldn’t even dream of cannibalism… until, pointedly and yet still only in passing, they are removed from the civilizing influence of city life.
And now someone has gone and made a story that is explicitly about that very notion, and again via animals. And Zootropolis (aka in some regions Zootopia) is marvelous, a bouncy comedy mystery adventure parable in a fantasy world that is meticulously and cleverly conceived and gorgeously realized via some of the loveliest and soaringest animation ever rendered. You will want to visit this place. (And I’m sure you’ll have the opportunity to do so: there is zero chance, certainly now that the movie is a huge hit globally, and deservedly so, that there will not be Zootopialands at Disney parks worldwide by 2020, just in time for the sequel. A sequel that you will welcome, not dread, because it means spending more time in this wonderful world.) It’s not often a movie even attempts to so casually and cheerfully jump across so many genres, and even less frequently that a movie succeeds as well as this one does. Directed and written (with a surprisingly long list of cowriters) by Byron Howard (Tangled, Bolt) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph), with an assist from codirector Jared Bush (making his directorial debut), Zootropolis achieves utter and delightful perfection without breaking a sweat, it’s that serenely confident in itself.
Though the running themes of inclusion and diversity and tolerance are powerful, they never take obvious paths. In the city of Zootropolis (or, depending on in which country you see this movie, Zootopia), all manner of mammals, predator and prey alike, live together in relative bustling harmony. Which isn’t to say that bigotry, scaremongering, and fear-based politics aren’t still things here. Judy Hopps (the voice of Ginnifer Goodwin: Something Borrowed, Take Me Home Tonight) is a novelty, and not taken very seriously, as a new rookie police recruit at the ZPD not because she’s female but because she’s a bunny, the first of her kind on the force. Nick Wilde (the voice of Jason Bateman: The Gift, Horrible Bosses 2), the streetwise con artist who becomes her accidental partner as she investigates her first big case, isn’t subject to unpleasant preconceptions and police profiling because of the color of his skin (or, er, fur), but because he’s a fox (and there’s a barbed indication that his career as a petty criminal has been shaped by stereotyped expectations, not the other way around). Unlike in Madagascar, there are no humans here — perhaps they disappeared in a similar way to the humans of Disney’s Cars world, whatever that was — but we are here nevertheless. The discrimination and crude assumptions that Judy and Nick face may be based on simplistic impressions of their species and not of their gender or race, but the implied connections are inescapable. And yet they may be, perhaps paradoxically for their remove, more readily absorbed, because they don’t seem like a personal criticism of us as humans, of our own particular biases and bigotries. We can laugh with recognition and sympathy when Judy is dismissed as a “dumb bunny” and Nick denigrated as a “sly fox.” And because we are not clouded by our own bigotries, it’s easier to see through the silliness and hurtfulness of such slurs.
(This shrewd navigation of our prejudices makes the fact that the film features a comparatively rare female protagonist in Judy even more thrilling than it might otherwise be, because her character comes across as more truly universal — someone that boys and girls, men and women can identify with — than is, enragingly, often the case with mainstream films, which tend to depict girls and women as female, a subset of human, not as human, full stop. Though how well the film works on this level also makes the fact that there are very few nonwhite actors among the voice cast — Idris Elba (Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Gunman) as the police chief and Judy’s boss is the most prominent — a frustrating problem, and a missed opportunity, because depictions of nonwhite people could use a similar swing toward universality.)
It’s really easy to get stuck talking about how well Zootropolis deals with diversity not as a problem but a solution — look how well the city accommodates people of a far wider variety of shapes and sizes than among humans! — but that really is just a welcome artifact of the zingy ingenuity of the story it’s telling, one about people with varying inclinations and interests trying to plot a course for their lives through a society that fancies itself free and open, and is in many ways, but one that still has a few blinders on. (More shades of our human world.) There’s a chase sequence through a section of town called Little Rodentia, where everything is scaled to its mouse denizens, that is uproariously funny merely as a bit of unexpected and unusual slapstick, as a “giant” rabbit cop is horrified to find herself blundering about like a Japanese movie monster, and extra amusing in how it showcases the ordinariness with which all these people accept one another in spite of some literally enormous differences. The movie is crammed with stuff like this, which will tickle little kids and provoke adults at the same time — and it all works effortlessly on its multiple levels at the same time. Even the throwaway pop-culture references, of which there are many, play on more than one level, from the goodnatured swipes at the Disney ethos to my most favorite nod: how the name of our put-upon bunny heroine evokes Judy Hoffs, the black woman cop from 21 Jump Street (the 1990s TV show, not the recent movie), who also faced lots of prejudice from her fellow officers… and whose smarts and competence never got in the way of her kindness or generosity, either.
I adore this movie… and that’s not something I say very often. Even as a devout lover of film, it’s very easy to get very cynical about the state of our entertainment when we are awash in cookie-cutter garbage. But a movie like Zootropolis can restore your faith in The Movies. If you need that, here you go.
Oscars Best Animated Feature 2016
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2015: Inside Out
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