In the rollicking Disney animated feature, Zootopia, diversity is celebrated. All sorts of anthropomorphized animals – big ones and small ones, predators and prey – live and work together in harmony. Sorta. Within the boundaries of Zootopia, the sprawling Toronto-ish metropolis where most of the story takes place, we learn that day-to-day life is messier than the noble ideals would have you believe.
Big animals still bully small animals. Boy animals tend to push around girl animals. Stereotypes abound, sometimes reinforced by the very species trying to retire them. When the workday is over, many animals go home to neighborhoods populated by their own kind — a celebration of their heritage or self-segregation?
Where does Disney come up with such crazy ideas?
Don't worry, Zootopia is not just a movie about bullies, bigots and cultural confusion. There are lovable critters all over the place, loads of adventure, comedy of every ilk, and scads of pop culture references for the grown-ups. There are a few scares as well, but the kids I heard after the screening were laughing over the moments that made them jump.
The story follows young rabbit Judy Hopps (voice of Ginnifer Goodwin), who leaves her 225 brothers and sisters on the family farm to realize her dream of becoming a police officer in the big city. The fabulous Zootopia is introduced as she takes a train that passes through a number of the metropolis' colorful districts. How nice of the filmmakers to give us a chance to get oriented, at least a little bit.
Judy becomes the first bunny on the force, but Capt. Bogo (Idris Elba), a Cape Buffalo, assigns her to work as a meter maid while most of the force focuses on a missing animal case. Despite the mammal-inclusion initiative designed by Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons), the old boys network continues to reinforce species, sexual, and size related stereotypes.
The definitely not dumb bunny makes some friends; Clawhauser (Nate Torrence), the police force's effeminate cheetah receptionist, and Bellwether (Jenny Slate), a sheep working as assistant mayor. She also develops a wary working relationship with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a sly fox who claims to be turning over a new leaf.
Squirm with me as Clawhauser refers to Judy as "cute" and she brusquely explains that, while it's okay for one rabbit to call another rabbit cute, it's considered offensive when other species do it. Ahem.
Credit for the ambitious production goes to directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and co-director Jared Bush, working from Bush and Phil Johnston's screenplay, based on a story by Howard, Bush, Moore, Johnston, Josie Trinidad, Jim Reardon and Jennifer Lee.
Usually films coming from a writing team that big are a mess, but Zootopia is messy in a way that serves the concept. Sure, some moments are philosophically confusing. There's a very funny scene at the DMV, where all the employees are sloths that behave like ... sloths. Even as I laughed, a part of me — the annoying part that overthinks everything – said, "Hey, we're laughing at behavior that reinforces a stereotype right in the middle of a movie that aspires to rise above stereotypes!" Then I decided to stop analyzing and just enjoy the bit.
Complaints? Only a couple. Around the two-thirds point of the film the story gets a little draggy. Nothing drastic, but enough to note. And there are a few moments where I thought the whole BULLYING IS BAD, DIVERSITY IS GOOD thing was being laid on a bit thick. Then again, we're in the middle of a political campaign where bigots are calling themselves "victims" and bullies are being celebrated for "telling it like it is." Can our menagerie afford subtlety right now?
Zootopia is stuffed with characters, situations, culture clashes and eye candy. Part of the fun of the movie is realizing that this is the beginning of a brand new Disney franchise. Kids are going to watch this flick a million times. They'll learn all the city's districts, along with the notable characters within them. I expect this film to spawn a comic police procedural TV show starring Judy and Nick, along with theatrical sequels and the inevitable direct-to-video follow-ups as well. Heck, someday we may be able to explore a Zootopia at Disney World.
As long as Disney keeps creating product this inventive and entertaining, more power to them.