Some blogs might tell you that Zootopia/Zootropolis came about as part of an ongoing effort by Disney to address the more troubling and regressive aspects of their legacy and take on a pressing real world issue. But only I will tell you the truth, namely that it was part of a desperate ploy to pay off a faustian bargain made by immortal warlock Walt Disney by creating an army of furries for a demonic lord of evil. That is why, after all, the people come to Unshaved Mouse.
But first of all, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
Namely, why the hell is this called “Zootropolis” on my side of the pond? Well, Disney haven’t actually given a reason for the name change. One possibility of course is that, as sophisticated Europeans, we would know that any utopia, even a zootopia, is impossible in an imperfect world and refuse to see the movie purely on the grounds of philosophical consistency. Also, there’s the fact that a zoo called “Zootopia” is opening in Denmark soon and maybe Disney’s lawyers didn’t want the hassle. Who can say?
Anyway, if you read this blog you’re probably aware that Disney have been on one hell of a hot streak for the last few years, producing movies that are both critically lauded and hugely successful. That in and of itself is nothing new, the Disney canon goes through peaks and troughs and this is just one peak of many. But one thing that is different this time around is that Disney is more and more comfortable making movies that actually have something relevant to say about the world. I once called Walt Disney the most apolitical American artist of the twentieth century. His movies were beautiful, funny and charming but they almost never had any kind of political message or agenda beyond the most broad “be nice, everybody” kind of sentiment. They were meant to appeal to the broadest audience possible in their own time which in practice meant that they were very conservative and very, very white.
Fast forward to today. In my review of Princess and the Frog I called the current era of the Disney canon “The Redemption Era”. Unlike the Lost Era that preceded it, where Disney was trying to definitively break with the past, new types of story, new styles, new animation techniques, the Redemption Era wears its classic influences with pride. It loves and respects the canon. But it is not blind to its flaws, either. The Redemption Era is a Beatles fan who has every album but never forgets that John Lennon beat his wife. It doesn’t simply ignore the more troubling aspects of the Disney canon but makes challenging them a core part of its identity, whether that’s doing a Restoration Era fairy tale with an all-minority main cast or a Renaissance Era musical where the princess doesn’t marry a prince at the end. Zootopia takes this to a new level. Regular commenter Kahnamanko called it the most topical and socially relevant movie Disney has made since their World War 2 propaganda shorts and I think that’s probably true. But does that make it a good movie? Does the simple fact that it’s willing to tackle such a pressing and hot-button issue as racism make it a classic that will stand the test of time? Let me answer that question with a question, do you feel a burning desire to watch any of the following movies; Brokeback Mountain, Philadelphia, Crash or Lions for Lambs? Yeah, didn’t think so. Movies that directly address the great issues of the day are often very worthy endeavours but they rarely end up being particularly beloved movies. Does Zootopia defy the odds? Let’s take a look.
So the movie begins with a school play being performed by Judy Hopps (Della Saba), an adorable little bunny. The play gives us the basic background to this world. Humans never existed (actually, there are no primates at all) and while predators and prey used to act like the animals of our world. Judy demonstrates this by staging a horrifically gorey scene where she’s disembowelled by a tiger complete with ketchup spraying everywhere. However, animals have since evolved and now live together in harmony (more or less). Judy explains that now any animal can be whatever they want, and that she is going to be a police officer, much to the shock of her parents in the audience. It’s a funny scene that quickly and effectively establishes the rules of this world, but I’ll be honest, I mostly love it because it introduces us to the pure awesomeness of Bobby Catmull.
He’s got maybe five seconds of screentime and he’s not even named in the movie but everything about this character is just amazing. It’s the lazer-like intensity that he brings to everything he does. He doesn’t care that this is just a tiny kid’s play in a country fair in a nowhere hick town, he is going to put one hundred and ten percent into beating that drum because he is a goddamn professional.
After the show, Judy’s dad (Don Lake) and mom (Bonnie Hunt) gently try to dissuade her from becoming a cop, saying that there has never been a rabbit police officer, only rabbits pretending to be police officers to trick mobsters into hiding in ovens. Judy says that she’ll just have to be the first. Now, character design in this movie is phenomenally good.
In fact, if anything, it might be a little too good. I get the feeling watching this movie that Disney have finally worked out the algorithm for maximum possible cuteness and my brain is powerless to resist. I love this design, but I never had a choice. This may be sacrilege but I’m kinda over the current Disney house style. It almost makes me pine for the days of the Lost Era. Sure, the movies weren’t always good but they were always visually distinctive. I mean, visually, this movie is damn near flawless. But so was Frozen. And so was Tangled. At this point I kinda feel like they’ve gotten as good as they’re going to get with this particular style and maybe it’s time to try something new. Of course, the chances of that happening right now, after Zootopia has become the fourth highest grossing animated film of all time, are practically zero. Big changes to the formula don’t happen after a Zootopia. They happen after a Black Cauldron.
Anyway, Judy sees the local bully, a fox named Gideon, stealing fair tickets from her friends. She tries to stop him but Gideon mocks her, saying that he’s a predator and that there’s nothing she can do to stop him. Judy refuses to back down and Gideon says “You don’t know when to quit, do you?” and knocks her to the ground. He claws her face and snarls at her to remember this moment any time she thinks that she can be anything other than a “stupid, carrot-farming, dumb bunny”. Gideon then leaves and Judy’s friends gather around her and she shows them the tickets that she was able to grab off Gideon when he wasn’t looking. She then says that Gideon was right about one thing.
Flash forward fifteen years and the adult Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin) is now a cadet in the Zootropolis Police Academy where she has to endure a brutal training regimen not designed for small animals. But she pushes herself to succeed, cramming for her exams and getting up at dawn to run.
So of course Judy proves that she is swift as the coursing river with all the force of the great typhoon and graduates top of her class. At the graduation ceremony Mayor Lionheart (JK Simmons) tells her that she’s being assigned to the heart of Zootropolis. She also meets Lionheart’s put-upon Assistant Mayor, a meek little sheep named Bellwether (Jenny Slate) who congratulates Judy and tells her that “it’s a great day for us little guys.”
Judy gets ready to leave home and says goodbye to her parents at the train station. Her Dad tells her to watch out for predators and gives her a care package that includes fox deterrent, fox repellant and a frickin’ fox taser and whoah, whoah, whoah back up.
Okay, I can absolutely buy that Judy’s parents have prejudices against predators, that totally makes sense. But how the hell is it legal in this world for a company to sell branded products targeting one whole species?! I mean…how do foxes feel driving past a factory with a big massive sign saying “FOX AWAY INCORPORATED” and a black fox skull? Do the foxes picket stores that sell these things? Does the animal equivalent of John Oliver (probably a vole called John Volever) run segments where he angrily squeaks “Fox tazers?! How is this still a thing?!”
Anyway, Judy agrees to take the fox repellant just to keep her parents happy and heads off for Zootropolis. And it’s at this point that the animators just casually decide to drop our jaws with this gorgeous, incredible city that they’ve visualised from the ground up. I gave a lot of praise in the Big Hero Six review to San Fransokyo but honestly Zootropolis blows it out of the frickin’ water. Take an idealised version of New York, combine it with London’s Financial district, give it a dozen or so seperate biomes (tundra, rainforest, desert etc) and re-design it for use by hundreds of different species of different sizes and builds and you have Zootropolis. Or Zootopia. Whatever. If you’ve a date in Zootopia, she’ll be waiting in Zootropolis.
Judy goes to the precinct where she meets receptionist Clawhauser (Nate Torrence) who enthusiastically welcomes her to the ZPD and then calls her “cute”. Judy gently corrects him that rabbits don’t like being called cute by other animals and Clawhauser is completely mortified.
Anyway, they smooth things over, no harm no foul, and Judy goes to her first roll call. Judy’s new boss is Chief Bogo, a cape buffalo voiced by Idris Motherfucking Elba. Bogo tells the assembled cops that there are fourteen missing mammal cases currently on the books and assigns thirteen to all the officers and then…sticks Judy with parking ticket duty. Judy is incenced, telling Bogo that she was first in her class and that she can handle one of the missing mammal cases Bogo instead tells her to write a hundred parking tickets and Judy decides that she’s going to write two hundred. Before noon. Now, part of me thinks that Bogo is not being unreasonable here. It is after all, her first day on the job and a missing mammal case is probably a bit much for an unpartnered rookie to handle. But as the movie makes it pretty clear later on, he really does think she’s incompetent just because she’s a rabbit. Speaking of mammals, one of the things that sets this movie apart from other athropomorphised animal stories like Robin Hood, Chicken Little or, hell, even Fritz the Cat is that there are no bird, reptile or any non-mammalian characters. This bugged some fans of the movie but personally I love it because it neatly resolves a very big problem that these kinds of stories always throw up; namely, that in a world where the predators have to get along with prey then what the hell do they eat? If we just assume that birds and fish are non-sentient in this world then it’s simple, they’re eating roast chicken like any sensible creature.
Anyway, while out ticketing, Judy sees a suspicious looking fox skulking around an elephant ice cream parlour. I mean, it’s an ice-cream parlour where ice-cream is served by elephants, not ice-cream made from elephants unless this movie has a much darker underbelly than I thought. She goes in after him assuming that he’s up to no good but instead the fox, whose name is Nick Wilde (Jason Batemen) is just trying to buy a massive jumbo pop for his adorable son, Finnick. The elephant store owner refuses to sell to him because he’s a fox and Judy is so disgusted at his racist (specist? vulpist? predaphobic?) behaviour that she forces the owner to sell Nick the jumbo pop by threatening to cite him for health code violations and even spots Nick the fifteen dollars when it turns out he doesn’t have his wallet. Nick thanks her for her help and she says that he’s a great Dad and a “real articulate fellah” and goes back to work, no doubt looking forward to the self-aggrandising Tumblr post she’ll be making about this later.
But later, she sees Nick and Finnick melting the jumbo pop down for juice, driving to Tundra Town, freezing the juice into dozens of smaller ice pops that he then sells on the streets for two dollars a…pop. He then sells the sticks to a rodent building site for lumber. Furious and disappointed, Judy confronts Nick who calmly explains that he did absolutely nothing illegal and also that no one will ever take her seriously as a cop and that she’d better bust go back home and farm carrots before she suffers a complete emotional breakdown and ends up living under a bridge like a troll. Jason Batman is just perfect casting in this part, his dry deadpan delivery just meshes perfectly with the character. In fact, when he first came into read for the part he asked the directors what kind of voice they wanted him to do and they just said “what the fuck are you talking about, just talk. Just be you. Just do the “Jason Bateman” voice.” I also find it weird that an actor with such a distinctive voice has done almost no voice work. This is the first animated movie he’s appeared in in almost a decade. Why did it take him so long to venture back into animation?
Thoroughly demoralised, Judy goes back to her tiny apartment and has to endure a Skype call with her parents where they’re overjoyed that she’s a meter maid and “not a real cop”. Her next day goes even worse, with Judy just about ready to pack it in and go home, but a nearby green grocers gets robbed by a weasel and she heads off in hot pursuit. The weasel (Alan Tudyk), leads her into Little Rodentia, a normal sized town for the normal sized residents of Zootropolis where they can live without worrying about being trodden on by the other over-sized freaks. Wait a minute…Alan Tudyk is the weasel? Disney, you cunning bastard.
Okay, under Tudyk’s Law if Alan Tudyk is playing a character who is obviously the villain, it’ll turn out that he’s not actually the villain. But if he’s playing a character who’s seemingly a minor good character then he will be the villain. Which means that if he’s playing a minor villain he must therefore be…a minor villain working for the true villain who we previously thought was a minor good character.
Anyway, the two of them chase each other around like Godzilla and Mothra and Judy saves a shrew named Fru Fru from being crushed by a massive donut thrown by the weasel. Judy brings the weasel in but instead of praising her, Bogo chews her out for abandoning her post, endangering rodents and inciting a scurry. All very serious, ESPECIALLY, those last two. You’ve never been in a scurry man, you don’t know. Judy tells Bogo that she wants to be a real cop and Bogo replies “Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and your insipid little dreams magically come true. Now Let. It. Go.”
Damn though. Someone’s throwing shade like a cactus. It’s also kinda weird that it’s Frozen that’s the butt of that particular joke. Snow White or Cinderella? Sure, but why Frozen? Elsa and Anna had to work their asses off to get their happy ending. It’s kinda like a joke that would be made by someone who hadn’t actually seen the movie never mind a studio that had actually made the movie. Anyway, they’re interrupted by Mrs Otterton, the wife of one of the missing animals. Bogo explans to her that they’re doing all that they can but that they don’t have any detectives who can look at her husband’s case. Judy offers to take the case and Bogo asks Mrs Otterton to wait outside and closes the door. He then tells Judy that she’s fired. And…yeah, that’s completely deserved. You can’t just undercut your boss’s authority like that, no matter how big a dick he is. That was completely out of line. Bogo tells Judy that she is going to explain to Mrs Otterton that she can’t take the case but when they open the door Mrs Otterton is already talking to Assistant Mayor Bellwether who is delighted to hear that Judy will be taking the case and that this is proof that Mayor Lionheart’s Mammal Inclusion Initiative is already paying dividends. Bellwether tells Judy that she’s always got a friend in city hall and vamooses. Bogo tells Judy that he will give her forty eight hours to solve the case but that if she doesn’t she has to resign and Judy agrees.
No Judy. No, no, no. You do not need to take that deal. Here, let me just draft something for you.
Turns out the Otterton case has zero leads, zero witnesses and zero evidence with the exception of one photo that proves that Emmet Otterton bought an ice pop from Nick. Judy tracks Nick down and forces him to help her investigate the case when she surreptitiously records him bragging about how much money he makes with his ice pop hustle despite the fact that he’s declared zero income taxes.
After a brief detour to a nudist club which raises serious questions as to how animals reproduce in this world considering no one seems to have genitalia of any kind whatsoever, they learn that Otterton got into a silver limousine and and are even able to get a licence plate number. Unfortunately, Judy isn’t even set up on the ZPD’s computer system so she can’t run the plate, but Nick has a friend in the DMV so they go there. This leads to the sequence at the DMV where it’s revealed that all the staff are sloths that made up one entire trailer in the run up to the movie’s release and it’s a great example of an obvious joke that works through the quality of the execution. It’s just the facial animation and the vocal delivery that makes the whole scene gold, even if “the lines are slow at the DMV” is about as sharp a comedic insight as “airline food, not so good”. (By the way, it’s a cliché but by God it’s true. I had some chicken on the flight over to New York and I swear to God my stomach felt like a haunted house for days after. Like, I hadn’t just eaten something bad. An atrocity had been committed there and its malign influence lingered on…). The stop at the DMV takes so long that when they finally find the limo rental place that the silver limo came from, it’s closed and locked up. Judy accuses Nick of wasting the day on purpose but he says that he’s honoured his half of the deal and demands that she hands over the dictaphone pen that she’s recorded his confession on. Instead, she throws the pen over the fence into the limo rental yard forcing him to climb over the fence to get it, which gives Judy probable cause to break into the limo rental without a warrant. El-ahrairah himself would be proud.
They find the limo and inside, sure enough, is Emmet Otterton’s wallet and a whole bunch of claw marks indicating that something rather nasty went down inside that car. Nick panics when he realises who the car belongs to and tells Judy that they have to get out of there NOW. Too late, they get captured by two polar bear heavies and brought to Tundra Town where they are brought before Mr Big, the biggest crime boss in Zootropolis.
The fact that Mr Big is a shrew is kind of brilliant aside from the obvious joke because, despite, their tiny size, shrews are some of the most voracious predators on earth. They’re fucking vicious. Mr Big is voiced by Maurice La Marche, doing a slightly more intelligible version of his Godpigeon voice from Animaniacs. Mr Big tells Nicky that he disrespected him by selling him a rug made from the but of a skunk which he then buried his grandmother in. And we then cut to a shrine to of Mr Big’s grandmother while one of the polar bear guards blesses himself with the sign of the cross. So…there are no humans in this world but Christianity still exists? Fascinating. I wonder what species Jesus was. There’s probably huge theological debates as to whether he was a lion or a lamb.
Bellwether, who is now Mayor, summons Judy and Bogo to her office. She tells Judy that she wants her to be the new face of the ZPD, as the prey population looks up to her a hero. Judy says “I came here to make the world a better place. But I think I broke it.” Bogo tells her that the world has always been broken and that that’s why they need good cops like her, but instead she resigns and goes back to farming with her parents. While selling blueberries by the roadside she meets Gideon Grey, who’s now 1) All grown up, 2) her parents’ business partner and 3) no longer a massive douche. Her parents tell her that if Judy hadn’t opened their minds they never would have gone into business with a fox and Gideon apologises to Judy for hurting her when they were kids. Suddenly, some of Judy’s brothers and sisters come running up and Judy’s dad yells at them to steer clear of some purple flowers. When she asks why, he tells Judy that those flowers are toxic and that one time her uncle was poisoned by one and went beserk, actually biting her mother. Gideon says that the flowers are called “Night Howlers” and a big old lightbulb goes off over Judy’s head and she drives back to Zootropolis in her parents produce van. She tracks down Nick and tells that someone is poisoning predators with Night Howlers and asks for his help in stopping them.
JUDY: I know you’ll never forgive me. And I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t forgive me either. I was ignorant, and… irresponsible… and small-minded. But predators shouldn’t suffer because of my mistakes. I have to fix this. But I can’t do it without you. And… and after we’re done, you can hate me, and that’ll be fine, because I was a horrible friend, and I hurt you. And you… and you can walk away knowing you were right all along. I really am just a dumb bunny.
And my God but Ginnifer Godwin just nails this speech. It’s heartbreaking. It’s beautiful. It’s one of the best performances I’ve ever heard in an animated film. Listen to how she says “you can hate me, and that’ll be fine”. You can just hear the agony in her voice, because what she’s really saying is “you can hate me, and that will hurt more than anything in the world”.
And of course Nick has recorded her saying “I really am just a dumb bunny” and plays it over and over because let’s face it, he’s kinda earned this. Anyway, Judy realises that the weasel she caught stealing from the green grocer was stealing Night Howler bulbs so Nick helps her track him down. The weasel, Duke Weaselton (not Weselton) refuses to talk so they read him his rights, bring him in and interrogate him according to the FBI standard…naw, just kidding, Judy uses her underworld contacts to have Mr Big threaten Duke with a horrible death unless he spills the beans.
So Duke tells them that he sold the Night Howlers to a ram named Doug gives them the location of his hideout down in an abandoned subway station. They find a secret lab where Doug is farming the Night Howlers and concentrating their venom.
They hear Doug talking to someone on the phone who apparently is running the operation. Doug, it seems, has been targeting predators on this person’s orders and shooting them with darts full of Night Howler venom. Judy and Nick grab Doug’s dart gun and the Night Howler venom and make their escape. They flee through the National History Museum when suddenly they meet Mayor Bellwether and two of her sheep guards. Judy explains what’s been happening and Mayor Bellwether tells her that she’s very proud of her and asks to see the case and Judy suddenly realises that the final villain hasn’t actually been revealed yet and there’s only about ten minutes left of run time and ohhhhhhhhh crap…
Well sir, what we have here is your typical Redemption Era late-reveal twist villain and as usual it means that the price of not knowing who the villain is is that we basically don’t have a strong antagonist until the movie is almost over. For me, the only way this could have worked would be if it was a shocking twist that actually took me by surprise but, while I may have been caught flat-footed by Hans turning evil in Frozen, this one was pretty obvious. Think about it. It has to be a named character that we’ve already met, otherwise it’s not a twist. It can’t be a predator or that would undercut the movie’s whole message. It can’t be Bogo because for the reformed bigot who’s learned the error of his ways to turn out to be still a bigot is just unsatisfying. So that really only leaves Bellwether and Gazelle, and, no disrespect to Shakira, but playing the main villain is a bit of an ask for someone who’s not technically an actor. So it’s got to be Bellwether and while it’s certainly interesting to have the baddie be a harmless looking little sheep, the shock wears off really quickly and you’re left with the fact that…yeah, the villain’s a harmless looking little sheep and it’s kind of hard to feel any sense of peril. Anyway, they get chased by Bellwether’s rams but end up dropping the case and falling into a stone age exhibit which is in a large pit in the floor. Bellwether shoots Nick with Night Howler serum which causes him to go savage. I’m guessing this scene is why the movie has a PG rating as much as the fairly heavy subject matter. Watching an adorable Disney cartoon animal turning into a feral snarling predator is actually pretty darn creepy. Bellwether monologues that her as long as she can keep the population afraid of the “preds” she’ll be able to stay in power saying: “Fear always wins.”
And then Nick leaps at Judy’s throat.
And then she starts hamming it up for everything she’s worth, just like in the school play all those years ago. See, it turns out that Nick switched the serum with the blueberries from Judy’s farm and that they’ve just recorded Bellwether’s entire confession with Judy’s dictaphone pen. Bogo and the rest of the ZPD cops arrive and arrest Bellwether and things slowly start to return to normal. The predators are cured and Lionheart gives an interview where he claims that Bellwether lied to him and that the only reason that he lied to the people of Zootropolis was to protect them.
The movie ends with Judy and Nick (now a ZPD officer) on patrol on the streets of Zootropolis.
NICK: You know you love me.
JUDY: Do I know that? Yes, yes I do.
What makes Zootopia/Zootropolis work so well (and it works like gangbusters) is that, aside from little things like fantastic animation, brilliant performances and an awesome soundtrack, it keeps its message and themes firmly rooted in the narrative and characters. The movie doesn’t grind to a halt just so Judy Hopp’s can LEARN AN IMPORTANT LESSON ABOUT RACISM, she has to learn to let go of her prejudices in order to solve the case and discover the real cause behind the attacks. In this way, the audience becomes not simply intellectually invested in watching her journey, but emotionally and viscerally invested as well. It’s anti-racist in the same way that Fury Road is feminist, letting the story carry the message rather than stopping the story to declare the message from a soapbox. This is a wonderful movie, highly recommended.
Damn near fur-fect. I…I just wrote that.
The central relationship is funny, charming, tender and amazingly deep and complex for an animated kid’s movie. Hell, for a movie, period.
See, this is the problem with using a twist-villain, we don’t actually get to see them as a villain until the very end. There’s potentially a very interesting antagonist buried under Bellwether’s wool but because her identity and motives are kept a mystery until the very end we never really get to find out what makes her tick.
Supporting Characters: 17/20
There’s no stand out supporting character really, no Maximus or Genie, but that’s because the two leads fulfil the role that would normally be taken by the supporting characters in an older Disney movie. This is basically a movie where the funny comedy relief animals get to take centre stage. That said, the supporting cast is funny, wonderfully varied and gorgeously designed.
Damn it Shakira, if you don’t get out of my head soon Imma start charging you rent.
FINAL SCORE: 83%
NEXT UPDATE: 25 August 2016
NEXT TIME: I’ll be reviewing one of the most beloved animated series of the nineties about a grim, brooding, bat-like figure who protects his crime-ridden city (known as “Gotham” to its residents) from a colourful rogues gallery of super criminals, evil geniuses and monsters.
Neil Sharpson aka the Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger based in Dublin. The blog updates with a new review every second Thursday. Original artwork for this blog was commissioned from the oh-so talented Julie Android, whose artwork is now available for purchase on T-Shirts, mugs, hoodies and more at the Unshaved Mouse online store. Check it out!