Saturday, February 20, 2016

"Zootopia": Disney Gets Brilliantly Political

In Theaters on March 4, 2016

I went into Zootopia expecting to enjoy it.  Disney Animation Studios has really stepped up their game in the past few years, delivering hit after hit that, if not overt critical successes, are of the requisite quality to become part of the popular culture and return Disney to its days of former glory.  So, yes, Zootopia seemed like yet another entry into this stream of quality children’s entertainment.  But this film is more than good; it is nothing short of brilliant in premise, execution, and pure entertainment value.  This is going to be one of the most intellectually discussed popular films of the year, which is an astounding feat for any animated film, let alone one exclusively populated by talking animals.

Judy Hopps (an appropriately chipper yet subtly nuanced Ginnifer Goodwin) is a rabbit from the rural countryside who dreams of being a police officer, despite there never having been a rabbit police officer before in a profession dominated by larger, aggressive animals.  When she graduates at the top of her class from the police academy, Judy moves to Zootopia, a multi-environmental city that boasts a cultural diversity of almost every species of animal.  She isn’t taken seriously at her job and is assigned to parking ticket duty, so Judy becomes motivated to investigate a missing person case that the rest of the department is unconcerned about due to the species of the animal in question.  With the help of a con artist fox named Nick (a perfectly cast Jason Bateman), Judy places her career on the line to unravel a mystery that is bigger than she could have imagined.

Structurally, the film plays out like a buddy cop detective adventure, with Judy and Nick not liking each other much and gradually changing their minds as they discover more about one another.  They investigate a rogue’s gallery bizarre one-off characters in a fashion not dissimilar to The Big Lebowski, and there isn’t a single joke in this film that doesn’t land.  Not only are the film’s mystery beats genuinely engrossing and will keep you guessing until the very end, but the film uses comedy to make itself palatable to both kids and adults alike.  Whether it’s a visit to an animal nudist colony (seriously) or to a DMV run exclusively by sloths (a joke made no less funny by how obvious it is), Zootopia is wickedly inventive with its humor and uses its premise to its fullest potential.

And that potential includes some incredibly poignant commentary on the state of race relations in America.  You read that right.  Zootopia uses its premise to paint an allegorical portrait of the nature of prejudice and how people of different races cohabitate in an urban setting.  It’s not terribly subtle about it, but it also doesn’t assume that its audience is stupid or that the subtext will go over their heads.  This is a film that wants to make a point, and it does so in ways that are at times absurdly humorous, but also in tragic and unexpected turns.  The relationship between Judy and Nick is especially symbolic of this, as Judy has been told all her life that foxes are to be feared and not trusted, and Nick has issues of his own related to how others perceive his species, so their eventual coming together as friends and the mistakes they make even as friends are shockingly true-to-life in how people of different races interact with each other in America.

I expect Zootopia to be a huge hit with critics and audiences alike, but I also suspect that a fair bit of controversy will revolve around the film for quite some time.  It isn’t afraid to call out police profiling practices or the conditioned prejudices that affect us all, and that’s going to rub some people the wrong way.  But that’s why this is such an important film; this is going to teach an entire generation of kids that racism isn’t just something you do, but something that each of us struggles to confront within ourselves, even when we think we’re being reasonable or prudent.  Hopefully, by being presented in such an entertaining package, more than a few adults can take that lesson to heart as well.  Zootopia is probably going to be one of the smartest, funniest films of the year, so it would be a disservice to yourself to miss out.

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