(I’m a stupid, stupid Film-Person. Rather not say exactly what happened so we’ll just pretend this is March and Zootropolis is fresh in cinemas. Okay? Awesome.)
Zootropolis is the latest offering from Disney who have been in top form in the last few years. Let’s put aside all the external intellectual property owned by Disney for a second and just talk about Disney Studios themselves. Wreck It Ralph was a fun jaunt into the world of video games that talks about identity and societal perceptions. When Frozen wasn’t stealing the souls of an entire generation of young girls, it was a clever subversion of the classic Disney formula. And Big Hero 6 was a movie. Wow! So what’s Zootropolis going to do to top that? Oh it’s going to have one of the most nuanced examinations of modern race relations that I’ve ever seen in film? Next!
The story is that millenia ago predators and prey came together to set aside their differences and form a society. The jewel in the crown of this society is Zootropolis. A sprawling city of many different controlled climate areas where, in theory, anyone can be anything. Our main character, the rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is about the only mammal who believes this and decides to become a police officer because she wants to make the world a better place. Ah, bless. She isn’t respected because the higher-ups believe that a rabbit isn’t capable of being a cop so its traffic duty forever. While on duty she runs into the con-artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) who is a bit more cynical about how Zootropolis works and tries to educate her on this. Meanwhile there are fourteen different missing mammal cases in the city and Judy wants a piece of this action. She twists the arm of her chief into giving her one of the cases and outright blackmails Nick into helping her. Can a cooperative effort between the species succeed where racism has failed? I fucking hope so because otherwise this review’s going to take a turn.
As you can see, Zootropolis uses a classic buddy cop structure with all the plot beats that would imply. The odd couple of the wild card and the stiff, their goals and perspectives coming closer together as the film progresses until one side betrays the other. They part ways for a while but come together to solve the mystery and beat the bad guy. Finally, a new release has come that proves what I’ve been saying for the last two weeks. It doesn’t matter if you are using an old structure as long as you either have good content or do something interesting with it. Zootropolis does both and it’s primarily done through the strength of its theme of racism. All the old plot points I listed above are given weight by grounding them in the racial tensions between the characters. The best example of this being the scene where Judy and Nick part ways. I won’t spoil what caused them to split but I will say it is an incredible scene to watch because how the perceptions of race manifest themselves with one side being oblivious to what they are after doing while confirming the greatest fears of the otherisde.
The other benefit of using the buddy cop structure here is that it automatically gives us two different perspectives from which to examine race relations. Judy Hopps is in that unfortunate place of unintentional condescending racism that she herself experiences albeit in a more overt manner. Nick Wilde is only a stereotypically sly fox because he realised at a young age that was all society was going to see anyway. Juxtaposing these two worldviews against each other results in a harsh but accurate representation of a society where venturing outside your pre-determined box is punished where ambition must be coupled with the right genetics. I think it’s summed up best by the police chief when he says to Judy;
“Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true. So let it go”
However, the film would also suggest this is not how it has to be and that change happens on an individual level before it happens on a societal level. That is a really complex lesson for kids to learn and the movie does it succinctly and clearly without ever feeling like it was preaching. But not everything is rosey is it, Zootropolis? Teaching that racism is bad and how stereotypes are just self-fulfilling prophecy is all well and good until you start making jokes about the stereotypical behaviours of different species. Sloths being slow or wolves who can’t stop howling, these would be harmless jokes in most anthropomorphic animal films. But holy god damn when you are talking about racism as your central theme… it muddies the water a bit to say the least.
Aside from the weirdly out-of-place stereotype jokes, Zootropolis’ jokes are a lot like its structure. They’re old but masterfully used. A primary example of this is the scene around a character called ‘Mr. Big’ and I will give you two guesses as to how this goes. However, it is in the build up top the punchline that the old joke is made funny again. For kids, it’s funny end of. For adults, it’s funny because of how ridiculous the build up gets when you know the punchline. However, they are still really old jokes, so for me at least, I don’t really get any belly laughs out of it, more so consistent smiling and that’s fine by me.
Zootropolis feels like an old tradesman, using his old tools to perfection to create a masterpiece. For me it’s probably the best film that Disney animation has produced this side of the millennium and if there’s any justice in the world it will be remembered as such.
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