Monica Geller would hate Disney’s latest foray, as its central premise rests on animals dressed as humans. Beavers are construction workers, polar bears are Mafia muscle, lemmings are bankers (#satire) and one plucky bunny is a police officer. Yes, this Easter, rabbits aren’t giving out eggs and joy; they are coldly distributing parking fines and search warrants. Welcome to Zootopia: where predators and prey live together in perfect bureaucracy.
Our aforementioned heroine is Judy Hopps, a country gal from a family of carrot farmers in Bunnyburrow. The film opens with Judy as a child, performing in a charming talent show where she educates us about the history of predator/prey biology. These days, prey outnumber predators 90-10, and everyone gets along like the owl and the pussycat. Except they don’t. Despite a superficial layer of harmony, in its opening scenes ‘Zootopia’ reveals that stereotyping and discrimination are rife: Judy’s small-minded parents give her stern warnings about untrustworthy foxes, and it is expected that rabbits should remain in the carrot farming business, away from the dangers of unpredictability.
Undeterred by her parents’ advice that ‘it’s OK to have dreams as long as you don’t follow them’, Judy moves to the big city to pursue her ambition as a police officer. There has never been a bunny officer, but thanks to the city’s Mammal Inclusion Initiative (i.e. positive discrimination), Judy has been given an opportunity. The film is rather montage-heavy at this point, but it does give us a chance to appreciate its phenomenal design and intricate detail. One particularly nice touch is the population counter for Bunnybarrow, which increases rapidly as the inhabitants are at it like… well, you get the picture. Elsewhere, the separate locations that make up Zootopia are beautifully realised. Judy’s train snakes through tundra, desert and rainforest before ending up at the bustling metropolis, where she is sweetly overjoyed by her box apartment and aggressively loud neighbours. Ah, the naivety of the millennial.
Despite the horribly upbeat Shakira wail that soundtracks this transition (try everything; don’t give up; oh oh oh), at this point ‘Zootopia’ most resembles ‘Silence of the Lambs’. No, really. Judy’s rise to the top of her police academy and the flagrant sexism of her buff buffalo boss Chief Bogo, as well as the rabbit’s immovable enthusiasm and grit, can only conjure images of Agent Starling and her fight against the sneering chauvinist faces of the FBI. Unlike Starling, Hopps is trying to impress a Buffalo rather than catch one, but her first job of being a ‘meter maid’ isn’t going to help solve the missing predator case which has flummoxed the Zootopia Police Department.
From here, ‘Zootopia’ takes a turn for the noir, as it becomes a buddy movie mystery which runs like a cross-breed of ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Rush Hour’. The buddy in question is Nick Wilde, a fox (obv) who has accepted his fate as a cunning fiend and therefore plays up to it with a dishonest living as a con-artist. So: can Judy and Nick put aside their differences and prejudices, while proving to the city that their species are capable of more than society expects? Of course they can, but the interest in the film is certainly in the journey rather than the destination. After a hilariously languid pit-stop at the sloth-manned DMV (#doublesatire), Judy and Nick zip through the locations of Zootopia at cheetah pace, thanks mainly to a few too many neat ‘lightbulb moments’.
Like the noir of Raymond Chandler and the Coen brothers, the deeper ‘Zootopia’ gets into narrative, the less satisfying it becomes. Sure, there are twists and turns, but the average human should be about a scene or two ahead of the game, and the writing probably does not do the necessary bread-crumbing to make the climax fit with the rest of the film. Still, the overarching scheme of the (admittedly poorly developed) villain raises some thought-provoking questions which are increasingly pertinent in our climate of Islamophobia and radicalisation. After an epidemic of predators returning to savagery and an ill-advised press conference where Judy blames the ‘biology’ of the carnivores, the film forces us to think about the fear-mongering of the right-wing media, the marginalisation of minorities, and the surprising small-mindedness that exists within supposedly advanced metropolises. As the film enters its final act, ‘Silence of the Lambs’ actually becomes a fitting alternate title, as ‘Zootopia’ gives a chilling voice to the previously voiceless. Yes, we have all this biting cultural comment in a film where Shakira plays a gazelle.
This intelligent musing is refreshingly challenging, but it is let down slightly by lazy writing and far too many gags aimed at parents. Both ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ get terribly heavy-handed references, and I had hoped that animation had grown out of punning shop names after ‘Shrek 2’. Billboards for ‘Zuber’ and ‘Hoof Locker’ might inspire breathy chuckles in stupid people, but they distract from some of the genuinely original comedy in the film’s set pieces and attention to detail. The decision to keep the sloth scene running for an excruciating length of time is an incredibly brave decision in a zippy animation, while a brief interlude in a nudist colony (and Judy’s horror that an animal could let it all hang out) is as inspired as it is disturbing.
Perhaps the ultimate dissatisfaction with ‘Zootopia’ rests in the reminder that it is a film aimed at children, and therefore cannot avoid a bow-wrapped ending and communal dance conclusion. Unlike ZPD’s finest, Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde, Disney cannot escape its biology.