Movies that direct their stories toward kids, tend to save something savvy for the adults, at least the good ones do. Pixar and Studio Ghibli are notorious for this, providing animated dream-like films that are both empowering for children and insightful for adults. It’s what makes an animated movie fantastic, centering a story around something hopeful and enigmatic for children to see, while also detailing reflective subverting aspects for the adults.
Pixar’s newest addition, “Zootopia,” attempts to blend itself into this frame. Trying to make a film centering around a bunny cop and a sly fox working together, while simultaneously symbolizing the intricacies of our current socio-political climate. Using the imagery of predators to reference the inherent distrust towards black people, labeling them at their worst representation. Painting the prey folk as people whose fear persuades them to separate themselves from the predators, at least I think that’s what Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush, and the four other writers are attempting to manifest from a film about a utopia land of animals living together.
It’s called “Zootopia,” a fun-designed, extensively climate world where predators and prey live together. Evolved past their primal instincts, they wear clothes, walk on two legs, and express themselves adequately. Everyone has their stereotypical role in this animalistic society, bunnies are farmers with more than a few children, the strongest animals are cops, a moose is an anchorman (because media controls our ideology and a moose is one of the most dangerous animals, at least I think that’s what’s going on there), a Shrew referencing "The Godfather," foxes who are conmen, bodyguard wolves who howl, and slow sloths who work at the DMV.
Moore and his fellow writers work together through a large divulge of zoology to manifest reality-based character traits that breathe believability into a world where animals have become the evolved version of us, which, like “Cars,” there is no explanation for our absence. Despite that, the world itself grounds itself around Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin), one of the two hundred and eighty children from the happy carrot farming couple of Stu (Don Lake) and Bonnie Hopps (Bonnie Hunt).
We first see her in a stage play, providing the necessary exposition needed for us to walk into this world with the fewest questions possible, in an amusing fashion as well. She, along with her classmates, reveal their ambitions for their own lives. Who they want to become when they grow up, one chooses to be an astronaut, another wants to be an actuary, and our heroine lands upon the occupation of a police officer, something that would be a historic first for “Zootopia.”
After some debate over the idea with her parents, she finds herself saving her classmates from the town-bully/racist Gideon Grey (Phil Johnston). In a harsh sequence that may not be appropriate for children, we see a grand introduction to a world where racism/speciesism exists, which is where the metaphorical narrative begins to lose the confidence in its voice.
I'm not sure if the predators represent black people, if they are, is this a signifier of the potential of reverse racism. Later on in the film the roles are reversed, where you could argue that the prey represents the future of minorities which will outnumber white people by 2045 according to US census, they exchange that reverse racism to a biological fault as if white people will always be preying upon the weak. (Based upon our history, I can’t blame them) It begins to get more and more confusing the further down the rabbit hole you go, which is what starts to wear my praises thin. I’d rather you paint a clear picture for children to study, than one for them to confuse and enact in real-life situations.
The story goes on to have a basic underdog detective story of this “cute” bunny (which represents a racial slur, I think) and a new friend she makes in Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). He’s a sly fox who does anything he can to survive the next day, revealing the inherent conflict that comes when placing diversity of animals together to Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin). When she catches the heels of a lead on a case, she hustles this slick con-man into assisting her to track down one of fourteen missing mammals. The case becomes tricky, exciting, and scary even, but the socio-political representation outweighs that story, which is admittedly familiar and straightforward.
Yet, I find more resonation in that small story that the one where writers inconsistently represented these complex subjects, muddling the tone along the way. It feels as if there are too many cooks in the kitchen, each sharing a different mindset on these subjects, producing a story that struggles to gain traction from an adult-mindset. The childlike eyes that I desperately try to hold onto can spot out my favorite moments of the detective story and the sequences that are imaginatively brilliant. That’s where the Pixar magic kicks in I think, the animation becomes a main attraction, and the worldbuilding leads to some of the film’s funniest moments.
The ensemble of voices are remarkable, Bateman and Goodwin stick out more than most, naturally, but the array of talents include but are not limited too: J.K Simmons, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira, and a few of the writers who throw themselves into the middle of the action.
I do wish they slowed down to break down their screenwriting though, which foils and flinders underneath this internal pressure to make an animated film that speaks as loudly to children as it does adults. It’s well-minded intentions, and heartfelt fluff that surround our underdog turned hero bunny allow the film to be more entertaining than you would expect from a movie that struggles to convey it's ideology successfully.
It doesn’t all add up, but the equation is fun to put together nonetheless, making this raved about classic feel more like a middle of the road attempt at something in the vein of the masterpieces of Ghibli and Pixar’s past. I may be in the minority, but unlike “Zootopia,” I have a clear idea about what that means.
Editor's Note: This review was originally published on Mar 5, 2016 to critiquingcinema.com and has been re-written for qualitative purposes.