(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ (or Zootopia as our American cousins refer to it; the European title change being nothing to do with U2, but down to a Danish zoo, it seems, which still doesn’t explain the German title, though) creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). It’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.
So credit’s due to co-directors Byron Howard (Bolt, Tangled) and Rich Moore (of The Simpsons, Futurama, and latterly, the great until it kind of rests on its laurels Wreck-It-Ralph) and Jared Bush (presumably one of the three was really good at making tea?), and the SIX other credited writers for bashing this thing out. They don’t wholly get there, but they’re close enough.
I feared a Blue Sky-DreamWorks sugar rush rainbow early in the proceedings, as Judy arrives in the titular city to the accompaniment of a Shakira tie-in dance anthem (she’s a Gazelle, called, remarkably, Gazelle). For a couple of minutes Zootopia is reduced to life-affirming vacuity by way of aural bubblegum, and all the worse for it (likewise, you’re not missing anything if you don’t stay for the reprise over the end credits). But, that aside, those NINE credited writers have clearly done their best brainstorming the ins-and-outs and ways-and-means of this world, often to clashes in terms of internal logic but mostly imaginative effect (Nick’s money-making nous in servicing several different species’ wants through a mixture of astute recycling and vertical integration is particularly winning).
But regarding that allegory. Devin Faraci’s (very well-argued) review a month or so back asserted Zootopia is a muddled movie in terms of meaning, one where, rather than the clearly defined lines of Animal Farm “the animals are laid over the political message”. I have some sympathy with this take, as the picture certainly confronts us with its own set of pre-conceived definitions in forwarding the idea of predator-prey prejudice. It’s difficult to imagine prey not being justified in their fear of predators, particularly as the general starting point in campaigning against prejudice and for equality is that such fears and intolerance aren’t and never have been reasonable. But I don’t think it’s as difficult to move past the barrier of interpretation as Faraci suggests, particularly since the picture plays fast and loose with its metaphors, and evidently purposefully so. It becomes fairly clear Zootropolis wants to take in prejudice very broadly, rather than applying itself to specific signifiers and groups.
We’re told the traditional predator-prey relationship evolved into one of mutual equanimity a long time - thousands of years – ago. But, as with prejudices generally, the filmmakers ensure they are very much alive in the voiced present. One might expect such crutches as affirmative action programmes to have long since become unnecessary, all creatures having moved into a place where they happily co-exist, but each species brings with it its own set of ingrained ideas, something the filmmakers both work against and play off.
All animals are carrying them around all day, every day, so it makes you wonder how any of it is expected to work. And thus how any big city environment is expected to work. Rabbits continue to fear foxes and weaker, smaller animals still haven’t mustered respect from their peers (except in the criminal underworld, where the shrewish can become godfathers). Nick doesn’t have a problem because he’s prey so much as his species is seen as inherently untrustworthy.
Nick and Judy are each battling prejudice and stereotyping in their own ways, while – since this is an animated comedy, it has little other recourse, and so rightly so – most of the gags revolve around stereotypical animal posturing, from v-e-r-y slow sloths, to rabbits breeding like rabbits (the Bunny Boro sign) and only mostly growing carrots, to weasels doing what they do best. But they’re both, at different points, guilty of prejudice and stereotyping themselves. Everyone’s at it, not necessarily like rabbits, which makes the picture’s imbalances perversely inclusive, and also quite untidy in a very likeable way.
We see Judy’s prejudice against predators (Nick), and theirs against “weaker” prey (so addressing traditional gender roles, via the Mammal Inclusion Initiative). Neat metaphors are mustered that can apply to racism or sexism or even religious intolerance, such as using certain words (only Judy can refer to herself as a cute bunny), while her Fox repellent pepper spray incorporates both. And, of course, the villains of the piece are traditionally oppressed sheep. So yeah, Zootropolis can be a tad an ungainly as a catch-all for prejudice, but that is its self-confessed theme (“Zootopia, where anyone can be anything they want”; one in the eye for the absence of aspiration, Judy’s parents encouraging her to know her place). And, if its grasp exceeds its reach, it’s nevertheless to be praised for trying.
The makers have gone to a lot of trouble populating their zoological melting pot in intriguing and mismatched manners, often in ways that are appealingly oddball rather than making cohesive sense; the attempts to include all shapes and sizes (although insects seemed not to get much of a look-in, aside from the ones buzzing around Tommy Chong’s head – Chong yet again avoiding typecasting by playing a stoned Yak), from the miniature city-within-a-city where Mr Big’s daughter hangs out, to the frankly bizarre depiction of an animal naturist retreat, where the various creatures’ shamelessness is rather diffused by their computer-airbrushed absence of genitalia. I’d like to think that was the joke, but this is a Disney movie, so it it isn’t; the directors could at least have included some Bewoulf-esque outrageous concealment of bits.
Which goes to highlight the Zootropolis is more engaged with plot than non-stop jokes, to an extent that’s ultimately refreshing (and it’s not like the absence of funnies has damaged its box office; mind you, the sloth alone guarantees its classic scene longevity). There are numerous asides, sight gags and quips (I particularly like Duke Weaselton – Alan Tudyk - selling movies and sequels not even on release yet, referencing existing Disney properties, of course) but they’re very much in their place, secondary to a plot relishing detective work that puts most bona fide detective movies to shame. Zootopia has a Chinatown-esque span to it, revealing a web of corruption that extends to the highest office in the land, and if it rather neatly locates its arch-perpetrator at the end, she at least isn’t an obvious suspect (well, as far as the picture goes, only having so many potentials in its cast of characters).
Mostly, it’s just refreshing to see animations stretching themselves (the design isn’t exactly ground-breaking, referencing Bugs Bunny’s female alter ego with Judy’s sexy rabbit – as far as I’m aware Disney haven’t called the film Zoophilia anywhere – and Disney’s own Robin Hood in the design of Nick). It’s surprising – and heartening – that it should be Disney that has recaptured this territory, where competitors are mostly mired in frivolous, frothy fare. Even Disney-owned Pixar’s Inside Out, very good as it is, is ultimately extremely cosy and unthreatening in its scope (like the majority of Pixar’s movies). If Zootropolis doesn’t quite get there, it receives full marks for trying. And it also uses Idris Elba to show-stealing effect as the traditionally irascible police chief (here a water buffalo); given how poorly Hollywood has served the actor post-The Wire, that’s something of a minor miracle.