Reel Geek Girl: Zootopia

Zootopia (c) Walt Disney Animation 2016

The Film Poster for Zootopia (c) Walt Disney Animation 2016

ZOOTOPIA 

Directed by  Byron Howard, Rich Moore &  Jared Bush
Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Jason Bateman, Alan Tudyk,  Tiny Lister,  Maurice LaMarche, Shakira
Disney Animation
PG –  108 minutes
March 2016

Disney excels at telling stories we already know in new and spectacular ways, putting their own spin on it. Zootopia is no different. It’s a number of stories we’ve seen before: small town naif in the big city to chase her dreams plus funny animal world plus buddy comedy with just a tiny bit of romcom. What makes this film fresh and worth watching is that it uses these mashed up stories to make a point about prejudice and diversity.  

The gorgeous animation is a given; we’re talking about the House of Mouse here. They set the bar, so they are always working to top themselves. This film is no exception.  Zootopia the city has climatic districts to fit the habitat of its various citizens. It’s just as obvious that Tundra district and Rainforest district were there for the animators to strut their stuff.  The CGI rendering of the water, the leaves, and the different textures of fur, skin, hair, teeth, and environment are the stuff that dreams are made of, so if you’re a viewer who loves the view, this movie will be worth the price of admission for that alone. That’s even before we get to how crowded the world of the film is, and how many different types of mammal show up.

It is the story, though, that really makes this a movie worth watching.

Films that surprise me are fairly rare and have been for a while. The writing crew for Zootopia is aware that must be true for a lot of viewers, so they went for a slightly different approach: misdirection and distraction.  The film is full of clever visuals, homages, Disney Easter eggs, and animal puns of every spot and stripe. As a result, some of the most obvious clues came back later to hit me between the eyes and it felt like I should have seen them coming. Foxy.

SPOILER WARNING: this review will contain spoilers beyond this point.  Proceed at your own risk.  You have been warned.

The voice cast did their work serviceably: J.K. Simmons is his usual charmingly blustery self as the mayor of Zootopia. Idris Elba as the hard bitten police chief is played refreshingly with a couple of softer notes than that role usually calls for. Jason Bateman as Nick shows off the versatility his clever fox requires, and Ginnifer Goodwin nails it as the sprightly but determined and ever so optimistic Judy Hopps, the heart and center of the story.

Judy has wanted to be a police officer and change the world for the better since she was nine. Fifteen years later (they are animals but they age like people), she’s going to bring that dream to life, no matter how much it worries her carrot farmer parents and her 2K siblings (the first of a pawful of rabbit multiplication jokes, ba-dum-tching).

Judy takes the city in stride at first: the pathetically small apartment with paper thin walls, the noisy neighbors, the animals who insist on calling her a bunny. She saves up all her gumption for the academy, where she finds she must be creative to make it in a city built for bigger, stronger animals. Once she graduates with top marks she expects to go places, but the disillusionment begins with her first hard lesson. Big Bison chief Bogo is not impressed. To him, she’s an annoying response to an initiative shoved down his throat. Further, she’s a tiny prey animal in a precinct full of big, buff predators. He has neither time nor interest in seeing what this rookie is really made of, so Judy is stunned and dismayed when he assigns her parking duty.

The plucky rabbit chafes at the work when she knows there’s a missing animals case going unsolved—one that the rest of the precinct has been commanded to give their full attention—but she decides to take it with a stiff upper lip and prove herself excellent in the duty she’s been assigned. She turns out to be a natural as a parking officer because her rabbit ears are so sharp that she can hear an expiring parking meter from a football field away, and her rabbit quickness gets her there with the ticket before the whiny driver returns.

She meets Nick the fox because of the prejudices of her family and the Zootopia world at large: “foxes are sly and untrustworthy predators.”  Following him because she’s certain he’s up to no good, Judy soon sees him in a different light after sneering large predators give him a hard time. Feeling terrible for having misjudged him at first sight, Judy stands up for him, using her sharp police skills. She sees him in yet a different light when it turns out he was doing something scammy after all, and her upstanding assistance helped him get away with it. She’s even more upset with herself for falling for it. 

She tries to soothe her bruised ego by taking on a robbery. That hyper rabbit speed comes in handy as she chases her quarry into the part of town the rhinos, lions, elephants and hippos cannot follow. Getting chewed out for it later, Judy shows off the farm smarts she brought from home, but this doesn’t impress Bogo any more than her gung-ho showboat in did.  

Determined to earn his respect, but also acting with great empathy, Judy insinuates herself into the department’s biggest unsolved case.  Bogo’s attempt to stonewall her from doing so is stymied by the one ally Judy has: the Assistant Mayor. She is a prey animal as well, and is just overjoyed to see that Judy has taken initiative (especially in such a PR friendly way). The most Bogo can do is put Judy in an untenable position: he gives her 48 hours to find her quarry or turn in her badge. Too proud to back down, Judy accepts.

Judy is dismayed to have no leads at first.  She catches a lucky break though, since Nick Wilde turns out to have been caught in the last photo of the missing animal. The rabbit has learned from her prior encounter, forcing him to grudgingly assist.

Nick makes several game attempts to wreck her investigation including taking her to a spa for naturalist animals. When they find a license plate, Nick takes her to a buddy, resulting in a hilarious scene at the DMV (which by the way is run entirely by sloths). Judy doesn’t let Nick get away with it a third time, though, and the partnership begins to grow as each develops respect for skills and talents displayed by the other. After a hair raising chase with no suspect enrages Bogo into demanding Judy’s badge early, Nick stands up for her, and opens up to her.

Fun at the DMV: Nick Wilde, Judy Hopps & Flash the Sloth

The pair risk life and limb but eventually crack the case in spectacular fashion.  The resulting publicity skyrockets Judy into the limelight. With no prep on how to handle the press except for five seconds of advice from Nick, Judy is soon in over her head as the questions fly at her. She parrots back the “facts” of the case as she heard them without questioning the underlying prejudices: predator species are returning to their savagery. Nick is appalled and infuriated by her accepting it.  Her attempt to defend herself makes it worse and he walks out on her just as their friendship was reaching a crucial point; Judy realizes she’s lost her first friend. That kick in the teeth is soon followed by the city developing unrest due to concerns of predators going wild at any moment. For the third blow to the bunny’s battered ego and psyche, her “hero cop” status is something the new Mayor wants to use as a recruitment angle.  Feeling like a failure on multiple levels and like she’s only made things worse, Judy turns in her badge and goes home to the carrot farm.

Act 3 is as act 3 goes in such movies: I won’t give away the denouement and climax, but Judy bounces back from her despair. She finds Nick and mends fences.  Together they really solve the mystery of why the missing mammals had gone uncivilized. Cue the happy ending.

Aside from central character Judy, the ZPD trainer for the police academy was a female polar bear. There was a female elephant on the ZPD before Judy joined, and the Assistant Mayor was a demure ewe. Gazelle the rock star was a citywide sensation with her own app,  and was a voice pleading for peace between Zootopians. It was refreshing to see women characters with multiple lines and plot driving purpose to their presence. Even Mrs. Otterton, distressed damsel that she was, had agency in that she continued returning to the police every day, determined that by her persistent,  patient presence,  somebody was going to find her husband and bring him home.

The race and prejudice aspects of the story are subtly woven, and are what left me thinking about it for some time after the credits rolled.  There were very clever parallels drawn between Zootopia’s animal prejudices and our real world sexist and racist ones. The ones that most stood out:

Our first sight of Fru Fru, she’s a spoiled shop-til-you drop rich girl who whines to daddy when things don’t go her way. Fru Fru is a shrew,  so that portrayal hits a nerve. Thankfully, Fru Fru turned out to be sweet.

Fru-Fru (r) and Daddy.
Fru-Fru (r) and Daddy.

We see Judy is not above prejudice as she realizes when she compliments Nick by calling him “articulate.” Joe Biden, before he became running mate to Barack Obama, made a similar remark about Obama. It was meant kindly but it really is just underscoring the internalized bigotry that says Black people are ignorant, eschew education and can’t even speak English properly.

While Nick is a fox who proves the untrustworthy fox prejudice false, Duke Weaselton is exactly as shifty as his name and species would imply; so much so that he thought nothing of kicking over the mouse sized apartment buildings to slow Judy’s pursuit. Mr. Big, whom Nick could eat in one bite,  dislikes Nick for something underhanded he did rather than species related prejudices.

Even the sheep with their reputation as docile followers, threw their stereotype. Cute, unassuming Bellwether turns out to be a calculating mastermind. Doug is a genius chemist, and his two ram bodyguards are happy to do violence when a situation calls for it.

A Helping Hoof from Bellwether
A Helping Hoof from Bellwether

Judy’s first meeting with cheetah Benjamin Clawhauser has the latter gushing about how cute she is. Judy uncomfortably lets him know that bunnies call each other cute, but it’s uncool when other animals do. Clawhauser is instantly apologetic, even going so far as to say he should know better given how he is stereotyped himself as the doughnut loving cop. But that strikes a chord parallel to the discussion of who can and cannot use “the N Word” in real life.

The comment of the Mayor’s hired doctor, which Judy repeats without thinking is that there’s a biological component to why the predators are “going savage.” This links to a lot of racist excuses non-white people have to deal with. Many racists see black people as automatically criminal and violent because it’s in their blood. There are studies that show doctors are less likely to prescribe pain medication to black people: out of fear of them selling or abusing drugs; and because it is still believed by some doctors that black people do not feel pain the same way or as much as white people do.

A strength of the storytelling is that no one is exempt from making bigoted slips unintentionally.  Nick has a moment near the end of act two, where he’s playfully pawing at Dawn Bellwether’s wool while she’s deep in concentration on the computer. He is thrilled to get to touch it; due to the anti-fox prejudices, prey animals rarely let him close enough. “It’s so soft!” he whispers in rapturous amazement.  Judy stops him, though, insisting it’s very rude to just touch her hair without permission. This mirrors real world black people who have to put up with strangers touching their hair and remarking on its texture being different than expected (“it doesn’t feel anything like a Brillo pad!”). We never get to see Bellwether’s reaction to Nick’s clueless impropriety.

Judy’s apology to Nick is one of the most emotionally hard-hitting scenes in the film. She gives a proper apology! She acknowledges what she did to hurt Nick and she understands she was wrong for just going along with the “predators have it in their DNA” line she’d repeated to the press. She asks for his forgiveness while admitting she knows that it’s his choice to forgive or not. This is one of the most significant moments the film has to offer in my opinion; particularly in this day of “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” and “I’m sorry you didn’t really understand what I said” fauxpologies.

Does the film pass the Bechdel-Wallace test? By a whisker. The scene in which Fru Fru is talking to her girlfriends, they’re talking about shopping and fashions, not boys. The training montage also counts, even though the trainer’s dialogue consists of variations of the phrase “You’re DEAD!” to an increasingly frustrated Judy. 

4/5 stars.  That last star is withheld because  that Bechdel-Wallace pass did not include a major character.  It’s the simplest and most basic of tests and I had to hunt for examples. Disney is supposed to be the progressive leader and could have gone a lot more in depth with the important anti-prejudice, pro-diversity message if they’d gone for less homages and Easter eggs. If I’m honest, also because Gazelle should have been played by Estelle rather than Shakira; it fits better with the animal puns! Finally, given the film’s message of diversity and respecting those different from oneself, Disney could and should have sought out a lot more nonwhite voice actors.  

Jamie Kingston

Jamie Kingston

Jamie Kingston is a Native New Yorker, enduring a transplant to Atlanta. She’s a lifelong comic fan, having started at age 13 and never looked back, developing a decades-spanning collection and the need to call out the creators when she expects better of them. Her devotion extends to television, films, and books as well as the rare cosplay. She sates her need to create in a number of ways including being an active editor on the TV Tropes website, creating art and fan art, and working on her randomly updating autobiographical web comic, Orchid Coloured Glasses. As a woman of color, she considers it important to focus on diversity issues in the media. She received the Harpy Agenda micro-grant in November of 2015 for exceptional comics journalism by a writer of color.
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