Let’s paint the picture here:
I’m a senior at Case Western Reserve University. I thought I had fufilled all the requirements I needed to graduate, but then I check online and find out that I actually haven’t fulfilled my “breadth” requirements, which basically means I have to sign up for more humanities classes. So I drop astronomy (sad face) and take… Introduction to Gender Studies.
A strange place to start a review–I agree–but you know, I thought about that class as I watched Zootopia. A college level class in a kid’s movie. I love that. I love when movies can surprise me, especially if it’s intellectually.
Despite the movie’s friendly colors, funny trailers, and upbeat music, Zootopia is a movie that has bite. It’s a film that explores not just feminism, but what I like to call “holistic” feminism. I think there’s a real term for it, but it escapes me at the moment. Holistic feminism recognizes that a white women’s experience of sexism is different than, let’s say, a black women’s experience. In other words, what I’m trying to say is that Zootopia explores why Zootopia isn’t utopian along two intertwined dimensions: gender and race.
Sexism is explored primarily through Judy Hopps.
The introduction stuff felt fairly routine but it gets the job done. Judy is established as someone with a dream–to become a police officer–but struggles because she is a rabbit (because she is female). Her new police boss discriminates against her and gives her parking duty despite her qualifications to do more.
Racism is explored primarily through Nick Wilde.
Although the movie’s commentary on racism was very well done, I do think Nick is another one of Disney’s flat male characters, at least in comparison to their female lead. He gets a quick flashback which explains why he lives out his life as a sly, deceptive con artist but I felt his character was rushed for plot.
You see, racism isn’t as black and white as the Holocaust and slavery. Those–I would hope–are obviously bad things. But something like Nick not being able to be a boy scout because he is a fox happens everyday under the radar. We make assumptions about the people we meet before we even get to know them on the basis of the color of their skin, their hair, the way they dress, etc. And whether we would like to admit it or not, those assumptions can influence the people who we befriend, trust, and hire. It’s not fair that Nick wasn’t accepted as a boy scout by his peers because he was a fox. And as he says, “If the world’s only going to see a fox as shifty and untrustworthy, there’s no point in being anything else.” This is the struggle for many people stuck by their class, gender, or race.
Zootopia, at the heart of it, is a relevant piece of social commentary disguised by its animal cuteness and police drama adventure. Director of Wreck-It Ralph, Rich Moore, again creates a wonderfully imaginative and detailed world in Zootopia. Lending his creative skills, this animal world has elephant-sized ice cream shops, giraffe-accommodating smoothie places, and separate miniatures and elevator shoots for its rodent inhabitants. While these instances often flash by in the background, these little details sum into a world that induces wonder and awe.
The police drama adventure, while it had perhaps a few too many plot points, is genuinely funny and suspenseful. There are many references to Disney and other famous movies like the Godfather that should provoke laughter, though I didn’t care much for the prolonged nudist scene thrown in there. The pairing of Judy and Nick had a strong Pixar feel, inevitably furthered by the presence of co-director Byron Howard who also co-directed a similar pairing in Rapunzel and Eugene in Tangled. While there are elements of Zootopia which can be traced back to the history of its creators, all these parts combine into something that is ultimately new and fresh.
This isn’t to imply that Zootopia is revolutionary for animation or an unprecedented example of storytelling in cinema. While it holds an impressive 98% Rotten Tomatoes rating and 8.3 rating on IMDb, it isn’t quite the game-changer as Toy Story or as pristine as some of Pixar’s other beloved works. Judy Hopps is clearly the central character and Nick–often on a whim–progresses through his character arc as the plot requires him to. The romance felt unnecessary despite being secondary to the story and sweetly developed. The segmentation of Zootopia’s outskirts into different ecozones felt a lot like the island personalities of Inside Out and while I did enjoy not knowing who the villain was for some time, it often came at the expense of the story. For example, I felt the climax of the movie with Judy apologizing to Nick should have evoked more emotions than it did.
Nevertheless, I would dare not call this movie overrated or undeserving of its acclaim. I am so excited and thrilled that a movie like this has had the reception it did, because it means the issues that are being explored in Zootopia are resonating with people across the globe. While certain aspects of Zootopia may feel superfluous, the important aspects feel essential. I sincerely believe the police cop element was very intentional, serving to humanize police officers rather than as an excuse for action in the plot. And the prey sheep coming out as the real villain played with our own internalized biases, showing when social justice work can go too far. In this way, Zootopia does not preach as much as it enlightens. And how enlightening, Zootopia is.
Life’s a little bit messy. We all make mistakes. No matter what type of animal you are, change starts with you.
Final Grade: B (87%)–Zootopia is in a new class of animated movies that acts as a source of change as equally as a source of entertainment.