Hi! I’m Ana and I love animation. Folks, I know we’ve only just met but I thought I’d address the elephant in the room.
Disney. I was referring to Disney. Let’s talk about Zootopia.
Disney trying something different always feels like an extra Halloween to me. Sure, at this point I think most big movies that come out of Hollywood belong to Disney in one way or another (show a list?) but when it comes to Disney’s work in animation, I’m always more excited about, well, pretty much anything out of the usual every-other-year-new-princess-flick. I first heard about Zootopia when the first trailer came out. At the time, I kind of wanted it to be a mockumentary, for some reason. I like the real version of the project a lot more.
Zootopia‘s plot works like a well-oiled machine. The writers knew what they had to do and built a solid structure upon which the story rests like the world on elephants. I’m mentioning elephants for two reasons: one, this, two, they are both strong, reliable, and kind of uncommon in space. There aren’t many buddy cop movies and investigation stories in the world of western family-friendly animation. So despite being very classic at its core, the movie stands out because the writers did what we call “giving a fresh twist” to the genre. In short: buddy cop movies? Been there, seen those. Anthro animal city set socially conscious Female-led buddy cop movie? Now we’re talking.
Zootopia takes place in a world exclusively inhabited by anthropomorphic animals. Judy Hopps, our bunny of a protagonist, moves to the eponymous big city at the beginning of the movie. She starts her new job as a cop with the starry-eyed enthusiasm of any young adult leaving home for the first time but it turns out that life in the big city is not as dreamy as she’d imagined. Fortunately, she soons finds an opportunity to prove her value as a police officer. Or does she?
Judy shares her world with a number of colourful characters. We have the curmudgeonly police captain, the jaded-but-not-really con-artist, the actual employees of the DMV, and the Godfather. The. Fucking. Godfather. They could be stereotypes (a recurring theme in the movie) but instead, the writers chose to go the extra-mile and make them well-rounded characters. For example, Judy is not only an starry-eyed rookie, she’s a young cop with a lot to prove because she is the only bunny in a job showed to be generally held by bigger, stronger animals. She wants to make the world a better place but she comes to realize that doing so requires a lot more than a good heart. It’s something that she learns during her journey, both by bonding with Nick Wilde, a cynical con-artist, and by confronting the antagonist of the story. Quick writing lesson here: if your protagonist and your antagonist have opposite approaches to the same problem, you’re on the right track. Most of the people watching this probably grew up watching movies and shows where the bad guy just enjoyed being bad but seriously, that’s not a thing. Nobody goes around kicking dogs and making people’s lives miserable just because they’re evil. Unless you’re the original Maleficent.
Or Dio. Dio works too.
Zootopia doesn’t exist to hypnotize kids for an hour and a half. It’s way closer to an Inside Out than, say, a Turbo. It’s a direct continuation of the slow shift Disney started around Frozen and Wreck-It-Ralph. They’re making kids movies count again, which I’m really, really psyched about. I see Zootopia as the big D’s first entry into the “actually important” category. That movie has a lot to say.
By now you get the jist of it: Zootopia‘s awesomeness is all about the extra effort, creativity, and care that went into its creation. But what if I told you that this little jewel of a movie almost never happened? Not that it was never going to be a thing in the first place -the project was announced in 2013, but this awesome version of it didn’t exist until nearly a year before its release date. At first, Nick Wilde, played by Jason Bateman, was supposed to be our cynical, jaded hero while Judy Hopps, played by Ginnifer Goodwin, was going to be the spunky sidekick.
Yeah. I know. I probably would have skipped it entirely. The cynical detective is kind of an old, tired trope. Actually, if you ask me, the whole cynical-detached-whatever-I-don’t-care flavour that coloured the most popular movies of the end of the 90s and a good chunk of the 00s (is that how we call those now? I’m gonna call ’em that anyway) is slowly fading away in favour of something else. Maybe after the 90s we needed to be cynical because the 90s were sort of boring but the 21st century isn’t all rainbows and flowers and isn’t exactly getting better by the minute either, so maybe what we look for in movies now, both as creators and audiences, is more fun, joy, and positivity. Plus, we are in a new era of social justice fights, so it makes sense that a movie would reflect that. Add to that the fact that audiences are getting savvier and that female-led movies have proven successful many times in the past two or three years and you’ve got it. That’s a perfect background for a Zootopia to be created.
Of course, Disney itself also has a lot to do with this. While it’s clear to everyone that they’re not always on top of things, you can’t be such a giant in the world of entertainment and not get it right at least once in a while, especially with talents such as John Lasseter, Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush, Jennifer Lee, and so many others behind a project.
Plus, Disney as a company has a lot of people to please: their audience is enormous. They have a lot of fans and followers in a practically every country, every kind of community, and across all ages. That said, their primary audience are kids and their parents. And guess what? People who grew up during the second Disney Golden Age are starting to have children and I think a lot of them are asking for better movies to show their kids. Well, Disney says “Voila. Zootopia. Boom. Topical, pretty, meaningful, creative. Now gimme your money so I can make more bitches.”
Beyond the film
Good storytelling, my friends, is meaningful, yet subtle, storytelling. And Zootopia being about bias and stereotypes, according to its own makers, it could have gone wrong in a lot of different ways. They could have kept Nick Wilde as a protagonist or they could have decided that they missed 90s environnmental movies in your face storytelling and made us all want to murder kittens and be assholes just to spite them. But they didn’t. If I have one criticism to make about Zootopia, it’s its will to be perfectly neutral. It’s not a flaw per se but when you talk about what would amount in our world to sexism, racism, and other so-called phobias, I can’t help but wondering how neutrality would be a good choice. In my books, it tends to look a lot like willful blindness. That said, they did manage to not ruin their message entirely by ignoring the implications of their themes of choice. If the idea is to make of this movie a Being a Decent Person 101 course, it definitely goes in the right direction. I wish the tackled issues were explored a little more thoroughly but for once, I’ve got to accept that Zootopia is also a movie that should be accessible to kids of all ages. I’m a grown ass woman. I’m already more than familiar with the intricacies of, er, not being on top of the food the chain -and I am still learning. When it comes to societal problems, you can’t really stroll in with boxes of social justice content and infodump on everyone who passes by. It’s like every subject: you’ve got to start somewhere. And it seems to me that starting with the concepts of prejudice and how it affects one’s life is not a bad place to start.
Zootopia is a pretty accurate representation of our society. I’ve seen it painted as an allegory of feminism, but depending on the type of feminism you’re referring to, I think it goes beyond that. It tackles all kinds of issues: gender, race, class, politics, power play, and so on. It takes us for a tour of what it isto be disadvantaged, but it doesn’t forget to show that there are different levels of privilege and that, even as someone starting with a serious disadvantage, like being a bunny in a world of oxes and lions, you have to remember that other people may be disadvantaged in another way and instead of putting each other down, we should work hand in hand to try to make the best of our complex world. I think it’s pretty great.
I still wonder how they reproduce though.