Zootopia talks about prejudice through the kid friendly lense of talking animals. Anthropomorphic animal movies have always been a staple of Walt Disney animation. From Robin Hood to Chicken Little, they were just never the biggest successes for the studio. Quadrupedal animal movies like Lady and the Tramp and The Lion King were always much bigger successes. All that changed when Zootopia became the most well received anthropomorphic animal movie ever made. The fifty-fifth animated Disney film sustained a 100% for a long time on Rotten Tomatoes. Becoming the third non-Pixar Disney movie to win Best Animated Feature after Frozen and Big Hero 6. Zootopia is an entirely original idea. The director pitched three different animal stories to John Lasseter.
All of which sound like a serious step back from the higher standard the Revival era maintained. It would have either been an all animal Three Musketeers, a 60’s mad doctor cat movie, or something with a space pug. It eventually evolved into an arctic hare spy adventure. The only constant was a modern world made by animals for animals. It helped distinguish Zootopia from any other anthropomorphic animal movie made before it. So a city focused police procedural was envisioned instead. The original concept was just a lot darker than what we ended up with. Featuring something called a Tame Collar that’s mandatory for all predators. That idea was dropped and the perspective of the protagonists were switched. The change turned out to be the best thing for Zootopia…
Zootopia made me nervous as soon as I first learned about. I knew the reputation of anthropomorphic animal movies and the teaser didn’t help much. The teaser was Disney’s way of explaining how the world worked. The trailer made me laugh too much not to at least give it a chance. My brother and I went to the theater to see it and I can’t say I was expecting what we ended up with. Zootopia was finally an animal world that fully warranted the use of animal protagonists. I was blown away by the animal utopia they created. Zootopia takes place in a non-human world where animals have evolved into a modern bipedal fully clothed society. Zootopia is an impressively complex city that unites mammals from all walks of life. I’m not sure where that leaves birds, fish, or lizards. Size and ecosystem are all taken into account. With buildings that accommodate giraffes and elephants, miniature towns for rodents, and climate controlled regions. Like Tundratown, Sahara Square, Savannah Central, and the Rainforest District. Everyone’s still obsessed with smartphones though.
Judy Hopps is an optimistic country bunny who believes in Zootopia’s motto that an animal can be whatever they want. So Judy wants to be the first rabbit police officer. Judy is a good Disney role model and a better protagonist for a story like this. Once Upon a Time actress Ginnifer Goodwin was almost overqualified for the role. She brings a certain persistence to Judy’s struggle to be taken seriously as a cop. So there’s obvious commentary throughout Zootopia that replaces racism, sexisim, ect. with speciesism. Zootopia is unknowingly divided into predator and prey. Judy is frequently stereotyped as a dumb bunny, but she won’t let an incident with a fox bully define who she is. But she’s not perfect since she still reluctantly accepts fox spray from her concerned parents. Judy works extra hard to overcome basic training and is graciously accepted into Zootopia’s mammal inclusion initiative.
Mayor Lionheart is mostly concerned with publicity and frequently mistreats his sheep assistant mayor Bellwether. Probably the only mammal who really believes in her. Although Zootopia tries to overcome stereotypes, they still have characters like doughnut eating cheetah dispatch Officer Clawhauser. Along with the expected animal puns and pretty much any excuse to make risque jokes with animals. Luckily the humor ends up working out. Judy’s African buffalo police Chief Bogo doesn’t have much confidence in her. It’s one of many Disney roles that suited Idris Elba. Bogo puts her on parking duty, but she tries to make the most of it. It’s then that she runs into sly fox Nick Wilde. Formally the protagonist who wanted to build a collar free amusement park for predators. He’s better in a supporting role that still makes good use of an unlikely buddy cop dynamic between Nick & Judy.
Nick is a con artist who deals with prejudice just like Judy. Since everyone expects a fox to be untrustworthy. Just the kind of role for the dry-witted Jason Bateman. They meet when an elephant ice cream parlor refuses Nick’s service and she stands up for him. Before discovering his popsicle con. They behave like a bunny and fox at first, but Judy gains extra confidence after apprehending a thieving weasel in the rodent district. Judy receives a case for a missing otter that’s her only chance to be taken seriously as a cop. Judy seeks Nick’s help after the Otter is caught on camera with one of his popsicles. So she hustles him with a carrot tape recorder containing his own incriminating words. The neo-noir case is really where the plot kicks in. Nick & Judy cross all parts of Zootopia to find information. He takes her to a nudist resort that they can only get away with because they’re animals.
A hippie yak with the appropriate voice of Tommy Chong recalls the licence plate for the car the otter was driving in. Leading to them running the number at a DMV run by sloths. The hilarious joke was the best way to make people want to see the movie. The car they find is owned by a feared mob boss that’s really just a shrew modeled after the Godfather. A little cliché, but funny nonetheless. He points them in the direction of the jaguar driver who explains how the otter went savage and attacked him. When the driver goes savage, it leads to a conspiracy that predators are biologically reverting to an animalistic state. Nick stands up for Judy when the police miss any evidence of that. Which leads to Nick opening up about his own past struggles. Since prejudice goes both ways. Although Nick & Judy never become an interspecies couple, I still ship them together.
Bellwether leads them to the final stop in a compound guarded by timber wolves that they assume are the “night hollowers” the otter screamed about. It’s in the compound that they find all missing predators. SPOILER ALERT! Mayor Lionheart is holding them to avoid a panic that predators can turn savage. Judy is able to get the evidence to the police and she’s hailed a hero by the precinct. Nick’s help on the case inspires him to fill out an application, but everything goes wrong when Judy twists her words in front of reporters. Causing a rift in their friendship, increased division, protests, and a lot of other things that were gusty for Disney. Judy becomes disillusioned by this and gives up her dream. Fortunately it’s at her parents home that she receives closure from her bully and realizes “night hollowers” are actually plants that make animals savage.
Nick & Judy make up and the weasel Duke Weaselton points them in the direction of a ram that he sold the plants to. Alan Tudyk voices Duke, who’s an obvious pun on his Frozen character. Plus there’s the added bonus of pirated Disney DVDs with animal puns. The ram basically works in a meth lab modeled after Breaking Bad. So now we have drug metaphors in a Disney movie. Judy & Nick work together to get the train full of evidence to the station. Until they realize Bellwether is a literal wolf in sheep’s clothing. She’s another Disney twist villain with a prey-supremacist mentality. Like Disney’s other twists, it makes sense, but it starts to get a little played out after awhile. No one’s gonna put a small sheep voiced by Jenny Slate on a list of iconic Disney villains. She is ruthless in her resentment though, but Nick & Judy trick her into recording her entire evil plan. It’s then that Zootopia ends with a message from Judy about trying harder to make the world a better place. Leading by example with her new police partner Nick by her side.
Zootopia employed the same technology Big Hero 6 used to render a heavily detailed cityscape. Zootopia is truly a wonder of computer animation. Techniques used for Bolt were improved as well. Rendering animals with life-like fur. Having animals drawn to scale was another way of differentiating the movie. Mammals are cartoony, but not overly stylized. Like most non-musicals in the Revival era, there’s at least one original song. Zootopia’s only celebrity is Gazelle. A Thomson’s gazelle with the curvy hips and latin charm of Shakira. She provides the very catchy dreamer song “Try Everything.” Zootopia shows us that whether human or animal, unity can only be achieved when we come together.