Sunday, March 13, 2016

Talk Like the Animals: Zootopia, Reviewed

If Disney Animation's latest feature was only the funniest talking animal movie in years (which it indisputably is), that would be enough to justify its blockbuster status. As it happens though, Zootopia is also the smartest and most insightful cartoon to come along since Inside Out, which means a whole different group of people really ought to see it.

The story (in case you have somehow escaped the Mouse's mighty marketing machine) follows a bunny named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) intent on escaping the family carrot farm and becoming the first rabbit police officer in the metropolis of Zootopia. Zootopia is an immense city encompassing a dozen different ecosystems, from the rainforest to the tundra, and where all manner of mammals have learned to dwell peacefully together, regardless of whether they evolved from predators or prey.

But old habits dies hard, and between the various species there is suspicion, resentment, and as much profiling as we see in our own world today. In fact, despite the hard work it takes Judy to get through the police academy, many believe she has only been hired due to Mayor Lionheart's (J.K. Simmons) new 'Mammal Inclusion Policies'.

Officer Hopps' crosses paths with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a - dare we say it? - sly fox who she first aids in overcoming exclusion, but afterwards discovers she has aided him in one of a series of quasi-legal hustles he uses to make his way in the world. When tasked with helping solve a spate of missing mammal cases, she displays her own guile in leveraging his assistance, and an inter-species buddy-cop story begins. In fact, the legacy to classic Hollywood action movies is so strong, she is even given 48 hours to solve the case by her water buffalo chief of police, voiced by Idris Elba. Chief Bogo even gets a little dig in at Disney itself:

Chief Bogo: Life isn't some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true. So let it go.

Zootopia has a lot going for it: great characterizations, a tight plot (for a talking animal flick at least!) smart humour and slapstick in equal and enormous doses, and some of the most thoughtful design work ever seen in a movie like this. Every vehicle reflects the physicality of the animal driving it, from the articulated cabin of the giraffe's coupe to the wide wheelbase needed to accommodate the moose's heavy antlers. This is one of those rare all-ages cartoons from the old school, where there is something for pretty much everyone, and outside of those who simply cannot bring themselves to enjoy movies int he animated medium, I can't think of anyone I wouldn't recommend it to on those merits alone.

But, amazingly, there is more.

Very early in the movie, Hopps is referred to as 'cute' by a well-intentioned colleague, who she gently strives to illuminate:
Clawhauser: O. M. Goodness, they really did hire a bunny. Ho-whop! I gotta tell you, you're even cuter than I thought you'd be.
Judy Hopps: Ooh, ah, you probably didn't know, but a bunny can call another bunny 'cute', but when other animals do it, that's a little...
Clawhauser: [Mortified] Hoo, I'm so sorry! Me, Benjamin Clawhauser, the guy everyone thinks is just a flabby donut-loving cop stereotyping you.

Even when it is being playful, Zootopia does not shy away from the fact that these now peaceful animals have a shared history that is bloody and unpleasant, and it resonates in their interactions today. In fact, it embraces this, and finds tremendous and insightful parallels to our own world in tragedies like the Ferguson riots and the Black Lives Matter movement.

When Hopps tries to explain that there is a biological component to a recent series of savage attacks, Nick's sense of indignation and betrayal is absolutely palpable. When the mastermind reveals the insecurity that motivates their evil machinations, it brings to mind all the ways that fear and divisiveness are used to keep us from achieving greatness together, from the increasingly violent Trump rallies, to the Alberta man who insists on wearing his Oilers hat due to 'religious principles'.

Ideally, every kid will not only get a chance to see Zootopia, but will also bear it in mind when some nearby grownup (and I use that term pejoratively) speaks disparagingly about initiatives to give aboriginal people a seat at the table, or closing the gender wage gap, or about how wearing religious garb in public is really not very 'Canadian'. I hope when it happens that kid remembers this movie, and just how much actual work it takes to build a place where everyone can work together to be what they need to be.
Judy Hopps: I came here to make the world a better place, but I think I broke it.
Chief Bogo: The world has always been broken. That's why we need good cops.

Despite the title, it turns out that Zootopia is not a perfect place after all, but in a lot of ways, they have a better plan for getting there than we do. Maybe they aren't the funny animals after all.

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