Okay, so here’s the premise of ZOOTOPIA, a movie that kind of plays out like Disney Animation got hold of an unfilmmed script for a Dreamworks movie and said “Hey guys, let us show you what one of these would look like if they didn’t suck.”
Minor SPOILERS follow…
So the movie takes place in an Earth-esque world where apparently homo-sapiens never really showed up so instead every damn species of animal evolved into a civilized form and started wearing clothes, building cities, getting jobs and generally doing stuff other than killing and eating eachother – including carnivorous predators who (I guess?) eat something else instead. Still, old prejudices about predators being violent, dangerous, untrustworthy etc continue to, however passive-aggressively, persist – except apparently in Zootopia, a sprawling metropolis where all species live together in harmony and background doesn’t have to determine your position in the world.
Our heroine in Judy Hopps, an excitably-earnest rabbit who heads for Zootopia to become the city’s first rabbit police officer only to discover that the post-racial paradise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be i.e. she can’t get any good assignments – not so much because she’s a rabbit but because rabbits are small and all the important policework goes to bigger, stronger species so… still kind of because she’s a rabbit, I guess. So to prove herself, Judy sets out to solve a series of missing persons cases with help from a con-artist Fox named Nick and ends up blowing the lid off a bizarre political conspiracy wherein the “missing” animals turn out to have unexplainably regressed to their “savage” pre-evolved nature.
But in the process of revealing this to the public, Officer Hopps clumsily places focus on the fact that the “gone savage” phenomenon seems to be happening exclusively to once-predatory species and might be connected to their biological nature – inadvertently setting off a wave of prejudice and discrimination against predators who, as it turns out, are a minority population in Zootopia. To set things right and repair their obvious now-damaged friendship, Judy and Nick must solve the rest of the conspiracy up to an including the possibility that the savage-regressions are being somehow chemically induced in the population.
So… yeah… holy shit, Disney’s new funny talking-animal movie is actually a super-deliberate cartoon metaphor for racism, racial-profiling by police and also maybe the crack epidemic? I mean, I guess this is the new Disney now – everything get’s a deeper, more specific socially-conscious meaning to go along with all the whimsy i.e. how a lot (seriously, A LOT) of people felt very strongly that Elsa’s storyline in FROZEN could easily be read as a analogous to a coming-out narrative and how Angelina Jolie came right the hell and just said “Hell yeah, MALEFICENT is an extended metaphor for rape-survival.” Yikes!
And hey, I’m all for that – kids are smarter than they get credit for, they can handle this stuff. But it’s interesting that the just-for-the-grownups themes are now actually darker than the just-for-grownups jokes – and just to give you a metric for that, Zootopia’s idea of a grownup joke is building a key scene around a drawn-out BREAKING BAD parody.
But then again I guess Disney has been working with material like this for awhile – in fact the Disney-affliliated movie that ZOOTOPIA resembles more than any other in terms of tone and sensibility is WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT and that was social-metaphor overload central i.e. the whole thing is mainly about the life of minority actors in Golden Age Hollywood… or did you miss that the Toons all lived in their separate town outside the main city that was in danger of being bulldozed for an urban renewal project and that whole subplot where the cops can just murder them without any consequence?
But whatever. The fact is, even when it’s not playfully affecting a Disney Afternoon version of THE WIRE, ZOOTOPIA is goddamn riot and a lot of fun. Even if the actual story wasn’t compelling and the actors so game well-cast in their roles – particularly Jason Bateman as Nick and Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy – the movie would be worth it for the sheer level of imagination and creativity that’s clearly gone into designing the world where this all plays out. The level of detail and the way its consistently used to pile jokes upon jokes upon more jokes both in terms of how things work and how the mechanics of Zootopia play off one another is a wonder to behold, and while Disney tends to be extra-careful about what becomes a franchise it feels like the ZOOTOPIA universe is richly-detailed enough that you could set dozens of stories here and still only scratch the surface of what’s available here.
ZOOTOPIA is flat-out, full-stop one of the best comedies of the year – period, animated, talking-animal or otherwise. I mean that without any exaggeration: The extended sequence involving a DMV office staffed entirely by Sloths is one of the funniest extended comedy bits I’ve seen in years. Plus it’s sharp, modern, dialed-in and “of the moment” in a way animated fare and especially Disney animated very seldom is just by the logistics of how long these things take to make. I loved it, I think you will too.