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“Tell me if this sounds familiar – naive little kid with good grades and big ideals says ‘Hey look at me, I’m gonna move to Zootopia where predators and prey live in harmony and sing Kumbaya!’…Only to find, whoopsie! We don’t all get along.”
-Nick Wilde, stating the film’s premise in a nutshell
Have you ever had an idea for something, something you knew was right up your alley, that you could pull off spectacularly without having to rely on anyone else’s words or opinions or worry about stealing someone else’s punchlines, only to have someone with more experience and followers not only beat you to it but do it in such a way that YOU look like the copycat?
Because I did.
When I announced that I’d be going on hiatus until September and returning with a surprise movie of my own choosing, I already had a movie in mind – Disney’s latest animated hit Zootopia.
Then a short time later, Unshaved Mouse announced he would be going on hiatus and returning with Zootopia (or Zootropolis as it’s called in some countries). I’ve mentioned before he’s one of my influences, but it’s especially hard to review Disney movies because I’ve noticed we have similar tastes and opinions when it comes to them (Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan and Chicken Little notwithstanding), and, I have to admit, Zootopia is just another one he wrote long before I could, and even better than me at that.
Yeah I’m a bit miffed that someone beat me to the punch, but there’s plenty of things to talk about when it comes to Zootopia that can’t be covered in one review, and that’s a GOOD thing! This movie should be talked about, not just by fans or Disney lovers or even furries, but people in general. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Disney openly address issues that are alarmingly relevant today in any of their films (Hunchback came close, but it wasn’t the central focus). In a climate where racism, homophobia, and misogyny is out in the open, even in my country which prides itself on being the land of the free and home of the brave, Zootopia is a film that needed to be made. It’d be easy to write it off as a cute talking animal movie (hell, the first few trailers made it look like something shipped out of Dreamworks), but because it uses the animal society as an allegory, it works wonders. This was a movie a long time in the making and it shows; not only is the storytelling tight but Disney’s long climb to make good CGI-animated films pays off in spades. The animation’s elastic and cartoony when it needs to be while staying true to each animal’s anatomy, and the designs combine the big-eyed softness of the 90’s with the aesthetics of movies like The Jungle Book and Robin Hood.
But don’t take my word for it…even though I’m the one writing the review so it is my word. How good is Zootopia?
The movie opens on a surprisingly dark note with scary music and a darkened jungle. A cute little rabbit hops through the undergrowth, unaware that it is being stalked by a savage predator just out of sight. The predator attacks in a frenzy of blood and gore!
No, it’s just a school play put on by a group of young animals, one that exposits the story of the world we’re in, Zootopia – over time, animals evolved from savage predator and meek prey to overcome their biological urges and live in harmony. As someone who’s watched and been in a lot of these kinds of pageants, they get the awkward acting and scene changes down perfectly. Also, providing the background music, we have the unsung hero of the movie.
The rabbit, Judy Hopps, tells the audience that in Zootopia, animals are free to be what they want to, and reveals that she wants to be the first bunny cop. After the show her parents (Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake) try to discourage her dreams in a way that’s both heartbreakingly honest and yet comically brutal. While they prattle on about the joys of complacency, Judy notices some of her friends’ fair tickets being stolen by local bully Gideon Gray, a Southern-accented fox with a big ego and violent streak who…
Hang on a second!
Judy tries to stand up to Gideon but he mocks her because he’s a predator and the urge to kill is still in his DNA, while she’s just a dumb cowardly bunny. It gets surprisingly intense as he knocks her to the ground and scratches her face. He snarls at her to remember this moment when she thinks she can be anything other than what she is. Now when I heard that the first few minutes of the film would be scary for younger kids, I thought that there would be some kind of horrific accident or traumatizing death along the lines of, you know, the usual parental loss that spurs a number of Disney animated movies. I did not expect this one bit. I may have mentioned once or twice that I was bullied as a kid –
Will you get out of here?!
Anyway, though my experiences were more psychological and verbal than physical, they still run pretty deep when invoked, and this scene captures the intensity and fear of when you’re humiliated and put down at the hands of someone stronger than you.
Judy’s determination does not go unrewarded, however. She swiped the tickets from Gideon while he was monologuing and tells her friends that he was right about one thing – she doesn’t know when to quit.
Cut to an adult Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin) attending police academy and having more than a hard time working with a regimen fit for larger and more brutal animals. Through sheer willpower, the use of her own size and agility against her bigger opponents and one Mulan-worthy training montage, she graduates the top of her class. At the ceremony overseen by Mayor Lionheart (JK Simmons), we learn that Judy’s induction was part of a “mammal inclusion initiative”, not unlike Affirmative-Action programs we have in the states. Assistant Mayor Bellweather (Jenny Slate) gives her her badge and comments on how “it’s a great day for us little guys” before Lionheart pushes her away for a photo op.
Oh come on Cynicism, just because Disney did the whole third-act bad guy switcheroo for its past three movies doesn’t mean they’ll do it a fourth time. In a movie that’s as progressive as Zootopia,they wouldn’t be that repetitive, right?
Anyway, Judy bids her family a fond farewell at the train where they act as all concerned parents do when their kids go off to the city and…give her a taser to keep foxes at bay. They remind her of the incident with Gideon when she was a kid, but Judy tells them that Gideon was a jerk who happened to be a fox, and she knows plenty of bunnies that are jerks (sound familiar?). Judy mollifies them by taking some fox pepper spray (seriously, I know there’s racism against other species – specism? – but who the hell gives the right to make products intended to cause harm to one particular animal in this kind of world?!) and she hops on the train that takes her out of the Bunny Boroughs to the heart of Zootopia. And what follows…my God.