Reviewed by John Hussey
As a kid I really enjoyed watching Disney films, particularly the 90s era which included such classics as Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. But over the years I grew distant with the animated division due to their ideas growing stale, with the majority of the films being released either consisting of crappy sequels (that we didn’t ask for) or rehashes of done-to-death concepts.
But in recent years we’ve had a couple of exciting entries that went about to re-evaluate how animated films can be made, and how their stories can tell something new. One of them being Wreck-It Ralph and the other being Zootropolis (Zootopia in the United States).
Zootropolis seemed interesting from the start but I never imagined it would be as good, and inventive, as it turned out to be. On the surface it appears to be an innocent children’s movie about animals undertaking human existence, lit with bright colours and a simplistic plot. But underneath that innocent exterior lies a well written plot filled with so many important messages conveyed through the detailed narrative and well-developed characters.
From the very start of the film we are given an insight into the world of Zootropolis where every animal is anthropomorphic and live like humans, living in houses and having jobs, after a prehistoric time where they all lived like wild animals, separated by predators and prey. Though at the time it seems unimportant, apart from giving us some needed backstory into the culture, but this plot-point becomes intricate to the narrative later on.
The heart of the narrative follows protagonist Judy Hops (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny that dreams of becoming a police officer and making a difference within Zootropolis – a city consisting of all kinds of different species that live together. At first I thought her ‘I can do anything’ attitude would quickly grow annoying and too Disney for my liking. But her character is treat with respect and is given a lot of depth, making her an interesting and likable character to follow.
Though the message is about her proving that ‘anyone can be anything if they try’ Judy creates a realistic journey in which she has to battle for her rights, and really prove herself. Despite being the police academy valediction (after a typical, but humorous montage of her building up her reputation) her skills are tested once she arrives in Zootropolis and begins to learn that things aren’t what they seem.
This starts with the fact that Chief Bogo (voiced by Idris Elba) immediately dismisses her talents because of his distaste in having a bunny on the force. Judy is then relegated to parking duties, and though she tries to make the most of her situation, by proving how her talents can be utilised in the most wasted of opportunities, her optimism is quickly tested. This is what I love about Zootropolis because it explains to children that dreams don’t just magically come true, they have to be earned through hard work and strong determination.
The film’s co-star, Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman), is introduced in the most surprising way possible. Though it was known that he would be a hustler, I never expected that his first scene would pull the rug from underneath our feet. He not only hustles Judy, but us – the audience – as well. Every time I re-watch this scene I almost nearly fall for his emotional lie of pretending he is trying to innocently buy a jumbo-pop for his child, but in reality he is performing a long series of cons to make money, and his child is actually his co-hustler who’s actually a grown man in disguise (that’s always an amusing twist).
Nick is quick to throw Judy’s dreams down the toilet by explaining to her how the world actually works and that Zootropolis isn’t the place of opportunity everyone expects it to be (almost reflecting the real-world idea of people travelling to the big cities believing there will be more opportunities and quickly discover this isn’t the case). This is the golden part about Zootropolis in being very grown-up and showing us, and particularly children, that life is tough and that even the most optimistic person can be challenged.
Judy begins to feel down as her dreams quickly fade away but her optimism lifts when she is given the chance to be a ‘real’ cop and ultimately captures a small-time criminal. You would assume that the film would begin going down the Disney route of acknowledging her greatness but it doesn’t. Bogo calls her into his office to give hell about how she disobeyed orders and acted reckless in his duties.
Despite Bogo being a massive dick at times I really enjoy his character because he’s just so blunt, which makes him extremely funny. In this scene he pretty much sums-up that Zootropolis is pretty much giving the middle-finger to Disney princess movies by having a realistic development of character goals and their journey to achieve it.
Bogo’s line of “Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true. So let it go.” really reflects how Zootropolis is delivering a completely different, and unique, life lesson to children which I find is far more beneficial than pretending everything will be okay if you just sing a song.
Luckily Judy is given a chance to prove herself but not without consequences. This makes her quest to solve a case more impactful because her career is on the line (again reflecting a more realistic scenario). Judy ultimately has to turn to Nick for help, due to the fact that he’s the only lead in her missing mammal case. I love how she turns his own hustling trick back on him, ultimately blackmailing him in order to gain his cooperation. It becomes an entertaining journey of them trying to bond. Judy constantly strives to prove that her optimism can overcome her obstacles whilst Nick tries at every turn to knockdown that optimism via amusing interferences.
This involves Nick taking Judy to a naturalist club and the DMV to find clues, ultimately leading them to Mr. Big (voiced by Maurice LaMarche), an artic shrew that happens to be the most dangerous crime-boss in Tundratown. Once again Zootropolis pulls the rug from underneath your feet as the trailers misled you to believe that Mr. Big would be the narrative’s villain (as it seemed pretty obvious) but you’d be wrong.
Instead the crime-boss becomes an alley and aids the duo on their next step of the journey which leads to the film taking a surprising turn in its structure (one I didn’t see coming and left me completely clueless as to where the story was heading). A new plot-thread was introduced about predators going savage, with one encounter nearly ending with Judy and Nick being killed (a surprising dark turn for what was a bright, colourful animation). This in turn links back to the case and explains why there are missing mammals.
Zootropolis becomes even more dramatic when it turns personal by conveying its opinions on prejudice. The film throughout demonstrates the harm of this particular expression, particularly when it came Foxes. At almost every turn Nick and his race were deemed shifty and untrustworthy because of his species’ stereotype, much like Judy wasn’t deemed fit as a cop because bunny’s are small and cute.
There is a very saddening flashback displayed by Nick in which we get a real understanding of why his character is the way he is. He was once like Judy – had a dream and wanted to be different from what other’s perceived – but that was taken away from him when he tried joining the scouts and the other children bullied him because of his species. This ties into racism, and how other’s can offend other races because of their differences, and furthermore stereotyping them because of the small bad minority.
This scene nearly made me cry upon first watching the film because of how tragic it was. It felt very personal (something I could clearly relate to because I too was bullied in my youth) and it made you truly feel sorry for Nick, especially because you knew how this affected his personality in his adulthood.
Judy also joins the prejudice bus as her solving of the case ultimately leads to a society of paranoia as she wrongly places predators in a judgemental position. This makes Nick fall out with Judy as he thought she was the one mammal that understood he was different but instead got shafted with the same backhanded treatment from everyone else. Due to Zootropolis now deeming all predators dangerous (which cleverly reflects the current state of affairs within our own society) Judy feels responsible for destroying what she thought was once a great place to live, now terrorised by hateful judgement.
This is where the film makes its most interesting move by having the protagonist question their decisions and realise (as a person) they aren’t perfect, and are capable of mistakes. Despite Judy having achieved her dreams and solved the case, thus becoming a real police officer, she has in turn created a hostile environment, resulting in a moment where children are taught that doing the right thing doesn’t always result in the right outcome.
There is then a small segment dedicated to Judy quitting her job, disregarding her dream after taking responsibility for her mistakes, and contemplating on her decisions. But this leads her to realise that she can rectify them after realising that her actions have also brought about good outcomes, i.e. her parents disregarding their previous prejudice viewpoints and befriending Judy’s old school bully, Gideon Grey, now reformed as a caring and helpful member of society.
I really love the scene in which Judy returns to Zootropolis and apologises to Nick, further establishing a protagonist with flaws and the ability to express those flaws as weaknesses that they need to overcome. It’s a heartfelt moment which helps to pay-off this engrossing friendship. Together they manage to return to the case with a fresh mind and are able to deduce its real meaning. Once again Zootropolis pulls the rug from underneath us as it unveils the true villain of the narrative and their sinister schemes (again, I didn’t see this coming).
The reason the predators begin regressing back into their animalistic nature is because they are being drugged with a special plant known as ‘night howlers’. Judy stumbled upon onto this theory thanks to her parents talking about a past event where a family member went crazy after eating the plant – thus acknowledging to Judy that a bunny can turn savage, destroying her previous prejudice. The culprit behind this was none other than assistant major Bellwether (voiced by Jenny Slate).
Being a small sheep in a sea of predators, she felt her size was taken advantage of and hated the way she was treated as an inferior animal. She intended to create her own utopia where mammals would become the dominate species after driving predators out of Zootropolis via a scare tactic created from the usage of the ‘night howlers’.
Judy and Nick cleverly set the stage to trap her by fooling both her (and the audience) into believing Bellwether had won after Nick is too sent savage and turns on Judy. However, it was a ploy on their part and in the process managed to get Bellwether to confess her scheme, ultimately sending her to prison.
The film ends on the highest note possible by cementing its meaning after appointing Nick as a police officer, allowing his character to finally feel worth something beyond negative stereotypes. By this point you can’t help but marvel on the incredible journey you have just experienced. It’s an animated film unlike any other because it goes beyond the usual standard tropes and delivers something different that is filled with real meaning.
Not only does the film deliver a powerful message, it’s also really entertaining because of its strong characters and ability to use stereotypes as both a tool for social commentary and comedy. There are times in the film where stereotypes create some of the greatest puns and comedy goldmines. Whether it be about bunny’s being good at multiplying, a fox’s reaction to being in close proximity to a sheep, Mr. Big’ typical traits as a mafia boss, an Elephant not having a good memory, right down to officer Clawhauser being a doughnut eating cop.
One of the greatest laugh-out-loud moments has to go to Flash the sloth (voiced by Raymond S. Persi). By taking the mick out of sloth’s being slow you have yourself a scene that is filled with laughs. Even with Flash’s name you have a pun and a clear idea how his scenes are going to play out. Not to mention his scene is there to joke upon the fact that going to the DMV is a slow and painful experience.
But as you can imagine because Judy is a fast, straight-to-point bunny who is in a real hurry is constantly blocked by Flash’s slow responses and distractions caused by Nick, which makes the quick task of checking a registration number all the more problematic. Also I won’t spoil the final moments of the film but all I will say is they are surprising but completely, and utterly hilarious.
To round-off this review I wish to say thank you to directors Byron Howard and Rick Moore, writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, composer Michael Giacchino, all the wonderful animators, and just everyone involved in making this terrific film because you all did a wonderful job. Zootropolis is a prodigy within the modern age and I really hope every filmmaker out there looks to this film as inspiration as to how to create a ‘great’ animated feature.