Some of the best films take on issues such as racism, police brutality and media exploitation in their narratives, using humor to skewer the stupidity behind them. Film can be a truly insidious art form, entertaining us while planting little subversive thoughts in our heads.
That’s right, I’m talking about the biting social commentary of Zootopia.
Okay, Zootopia will never be on the same level as a film like Do the Right Thing or a satire like Blazing Saddles. But the animated film manages to poke modern society without becoming too heavy handed. And it tells a compelling mystery too!
Zootopia follows Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), the first bunny cop in the city of Zootopia, a huge metropolis where all animals, the “prey” and the “predators,” live in peace. Judy learns that the city’s mantra, that any animal can be anything they want, is a bit of an illusion as none of the police force takes her seriously. Despite this, the determined bunny pursues the case of a number of missing mammals with the help of con artist fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).
The bright and sunny setting, fun humor and charismatic characters give the film a shiny and entertaining shell that hides surprising subversive material. While it never gets overly cynical, it takes some shocking swipes at modern racial and class relations.
Look at the city of Zootopia itself. Judy absolutely believes in its promise of utopia where all you need is a dream to follow. Yet she is repeatedly told to know her place, that she is too small to be an effective cop. And there is the stigma of being “country” in a big city.
While most of the city works together, they are somewhat segregated into their own communities. How much of this is the simple animated family movie trope of gathering all animals in one group or social commentary is never made explicitly clear, but given how the rest of the film deals with “race,” this conclusion is not too big a leap.
At several points, different animals are stereotyped similarly to racial stereotypes. For example, foxes are not to be trusted because of a predilection to crime. At one shocking point, there is a suggestion that some animals are biologically prone to violence and should be feared. Tensions rise as the media takes this belief and runs with it.
My mouth literally dropped at that scene because this is a family film. The obvious modern parallels are obvious here and the film handles it incredibly well. It never feels like it’s holding back, but it also never hits us over the head with the message. The tensions come in an organic way because it is established early that this is an imperfect world where preconceived notions are ingrained at early ages. It’s probably the most realistic approach of any other animated film.
Of course, Zootopia is not scene to scene socially aware commentary. The humor is great, relying heavily on one liners rather than physical humor, which is still very much present. It relies on the wit of its characters and their quick quips to keep the humor rolling.
This being a Disney film, Zootopia does eventually bring a more uplifting message of understanding the differences rather than fearing them. This message is mostly successful because of how likeable the two lead characters are and a compelling story.
Goodwin brings an infectious enthusiasm to Judy that never gets old. This is perfectly off set by Bateman’s Nick, who is wonderfully cynical. The two have great chemistry together and the mystery they try and solve is actually really compelling.
Without getting into spoiler details, the mystery ties nicely into the “racial” tensions and has some genuinely surprising twists. But ultimately it serves as a way to build up the friendship between Judy and Nick. If there is a sequel, it should be fun if these two return.
A special note should be made for Idris Elba, who continues to show his immense talent as a voice actor. He does great work as Chief Bogo here even though it’s a small part. Elba’s voice is so expressive, showing the versatility of a veteran voice actor. The rest of the cast, which includes Jenny Slate, JK Simmons and Shakira is solid as well.
Animated films have become more than fodder for children in recent decades so Zootopia’s direction should not be very surprising. While it creates a fun allegory for today’s society, no one will ever confuse it with something like Animal Farm, which relies on darker tone. That said, the positive message is pitch perfect for our times, never dismissing racial tension as something that will disappear overnight.
Teach your kids a thing or too and have fun doing it.
SCORE: 8 OUT OF 10